Obama signs DADT repeal before big, emotional crowd

By William Branigin, Debbi Wilgoren and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 11:49 AM

President Obama signed the landmark repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy Wednesday morning, handing a major victory to advocates of gay rights and fulfilling a campaign promise to do away with a practice that he has called discriminatory.

Casting the repeal in terms of past civil rights struggles, Obama said he was proud to sign a law that "will strengthen our national security and uphold the ideals that our fighting men and women risk their lives to defend."

In remarks before signing the repeal, he added: "No longer will our country be denied the service of thousands of patriotic Americans who are forced to leave the military - regardless of their skills, no matter their bravery or their zeal, no matter their years of exemplary performance - because they happen to be gay. No longer will tens of thousands of Americans in uniform be asked to live a lie, or look over their shoulder in order to serve the country that they love."

The signing does not immediately implement the repeal but instead begins the process of ending the ban on gays serving openly in the military.

The law will not actually change until the Pentagon certifies to Congress that the military has met several conditions, including education and training programs for the troops.

"In the coming days, we will begin the process laid out by this law" to implement the repeal, Obama said. Meanwhile, he cautioned, "the old policy remains in effect." But he pledged that all the service chiefs are "committed to implementing this change swiftly and efficiently," and he vowed, "We are not going to be dragging our feet to get this done."

Obama quoted Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as saying, "Our people sacrifice a lot for their country, including their lives. None of them should have to sacrifice their integrity as well." Obama continued: "That's why I believe this is the right thing to do for our military. That's why I believe it is the right thing to do, period."

He said, "We are not a nation that says 'don't ask, don't tell.' We are a nation that says, 'Out of many, we are one.' "

So many people wanted to witness the signing of the bill that the White House held the ceremony in the auditorium of Interior Department headquarters.

The guests at the ceremony included Joe Solmonese, head of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group; Vice President Biden; Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.); and Dan Choi, a former U.S. Army soldier who was discharged under "don't ask, don't tell" and was arrested in November after chaining himself to a White House fence to protest the policy.

Several other soldiers who have been discharged from military service because they are gay attended the ceremony as well.

Among the guests on the stage with Obama was Eric Alva, a former Marine staff sergeant who lost a leg in Iraq and who, following a medical discharge, has been working for the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." Another participant was Navy Cmdr. Zoe Dunning, a repeal advocate who fought to remain in the Navy Reserves and ultimately retired in 2007 after 13 years of service as an openly gay officer.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) also shared the stage with Obama, other lawmakers and top Pentagon officials. She was one of only two Republicans on a White House list of attending lawmakers, and Obama hailed her for her role in the repeal.

Before signing the repeal, Obama told the stories of several gay service members who had served with valor in conflicts dating back to World War II. And he expressed hope that "those soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen who've been discharged under this discriminatory policy will seek to reenlist once the repeal is implemented."

Obama said: "That is why I say to all Americans, gay or straight, who want nothing more than to defend this country in uniform: your country needs you, your country wants you, and we will be honored to welcome you into the ranks of the finest military the world has ever known. . . . We are a nation that welcomes the service of every patriot. We are a nation that believes that all men and women are created equal."

Obama is scheduled to hold a news conference later in the day if the Senate, as expected, votes to ratify the New START treaty with Russia. Signing the "don't ask, don't tell" repeal and seeing the treaty ratified were the president's last two major goals before heading to Hawaii to join the rest of his family on vacation.

In the morning, at least, the attention, and the emotion, were concentrated in the Interior Department's auditorium. Even though the Pentagon says the new policy is still likely months away from being implemented, those who have lobbied for it for years were ready to celebrate.

Obama "delivered on a defining civil rights measure for our country and for gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members who have been silenced for far too long," said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, in a statement after the signing. "A measure of dignity has been restored to thousands of service members on active duty, and to over a million gay veterans who served in silence."

But he cautioned that service members "remain at risk under the law" while the repeal is being implemented, and he called on Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to "to use his authority to suspend all 'don't ask, don't tell' investigations and discharges during this limbo period."

On Wednesday morning, the Web site of the Human Rights Campaign proclaimed in a triumphant headline: "DADT on Way to Dustbin of History."

"This day has come!" an elated Mike Almy, an Air Force major discharged four years ago when his sexual orientation became known, told the Associated Press. " 'Don't ask, don't tell' is over, and you no longer have to sacrifice your integrity."

Obama called for repeal of the policy during his White House campaign, and gay rights advocates focused on it as a watershed human rights issue for the administration.

In order to implement the new law, Obama, Gates and Mullen must inform Congress in writing that the military is prepared for implementation and has drafted the necessary policies and regulations. Those changes must not affect troop readiness, cohesion, or military recruitment and retention, according to the law.

Once the written notice is submitted, 60 days must elapse before "don't ask, don't tell" is officially repealed.

wilgorend@washpost.com baconp@washpost.com

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