Generational Divide

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(This post submitted by Becky Kanis, 1991 West Point Grad and Knights Out Chair)

Lieutenant Dan Choi went back to West Point this past weekend. Not for some media event - he went, as he did last year, to be part of a West Point ritual: the March-Back. On Monday, the Class of 2013 proudly marched back from their summer training to take their formal place in the Corps of Cadets. West Point grads of all ages joined them on the march, a select few, like Dan, for the entire grueling twelve miles.

And no, he wasn't shunned, or kept at an awkward distance. He was practically mobbed by appreciative cadets. A junior at West Point asked "Sir, are you Dan Choi from the Rachel Maddow Show? I salute what you did for so many of us." A new cadet told Dan, "I knew that I could survive West Point after I saw that you guys [Knights Out] exist." In fact, dozens of cadets went out of their way to welcome him, shake his hand, see how he was holding up with the discharge proceedings, and thank him for his courage in taking up the fight for gay and lesbian soldiers.

While Pentagon brass and more senior officers are cautious about speaking out in support of gays, one-on-one many will tell you that they have no problem with it. In a 2006 Zogby poll, 72% of active duty soldiers said they are comfortable with gays, and 23% report that they actually know someone in their unit who is gay. This doesn't surprise me one bit. Not long ago, a high-ranking cadet told me that having open gay cadets will be "no big deal" at West Point. "A cadet company is a family," she said. "We know who is and isn't gay and we don't want them to have to hide that anymore." West Point cadets and graduates understand what's really at stake with repealing "don't ask, don't tell" - nothing less than restoring honor and integrity to their full standing as Army Values.

Thanks to Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D, NY), Ted Kennedy (D, MA), and Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D, MI), the Senate is planning hearings on the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. This is good news for opponents of the policy. However, insiders say that the list of testifying witnesses will be "four-star generals and admirals" - neither supporters nor opponents are really interested in hearing from those of lower rank.

And a local congressman says he hasn't decided; he respects Lt Dan Choi, and Iraq vet Congressman Patrick Murphy, but he wants "to hear what the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have to say on the issue."

Really?

Yes, generals and admirals at the Pentagon are charged with the health and welfare of the troops, and are required to understand what that entails. But in practice, this means that a small handful of officers who were commissioned in the seventies are deciding what is culturally acceptable for the twenty-somethings that comprise the real fighting force. It's one thing to oversee the military mission; it's another thing to speak for the personal opinions of soldiers who grew up in what one straight soldier called "the Will & Grace generation."

Sure, some get it - GEN John Shalikashvili, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has written op-eds supporting the rights of gays and lesbians to serve openly. But it's unreasonable to expect anything but caution from our most senior military leaders, simply because open gay and lesbian service is not part of their experience.

Today's soldiers can handle the truth. West Point's honor code requires it, and even the cadet prayer exhorts us "…never to be content with a half-truth when the whole can be won." If the experiences of Knights Out at West Point are any indication, the military is more than ready to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly. The senior leadership needs to catch up with the ranks and the rest of society. The honor code and the cadet prayer reflect the values that should unite military leaders across the generations.

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