On March 11, 2003 Staff Sergeant Eric Alva, a proud Latino and a proud Marine who led a crew of 11 in Iraq, stepped on a landmine, which caused him to lose his leg. He was the first American injured in Iraq and he was awarded the Purple Heart for his service to our country. Staff Sgt. Alva is also gay.
The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell ban on openly gay men and women in the military forced Staff Sgt. Alva to hide a part of his identity throughout his military service. After his service, he began to speak out about his identity and how Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has kept talented and committed men and women from serving our country with integrity.
Nearly 14,000 gay and lesbian service men and women have been discharged from military service since 1993. And Defense Department statistics show that Hispanic servicemembers were 1.4 times more likely to be dismissed under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell than their non-Hispanic peers in 2008.
Women face an even more disproportionate effect of this policy. Although only 14 percent of servicemembers are women, they made up 30 percent of 2008 Don’t Ask Don’t Tell discharges. The numbers are even worse in the Army, where 36 percent of DADT discharges were women, despite the fact that they make up 14 percent of soldiers.
Military service does not only represent a strong commitment to our country. It also offers a path to the middle class for many families. The educational opportunities through the GI Bill and skills learned in military service can be helpful to job-seekers in this time of 12.6 percent unemployment in the Latino community.
The military has also served as a path to citizenship for many foreign-born Americans. Over 10,000 men and women served their country and earned their citizenship in 2009 alone.
The “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy closes off all of these opportunities to gays and lesbians of all races, without regard for their ability to serve their country. They cannot try to advance themselves and their families.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, testified on February 2 to his “personal belief” that allowing gay and lesbians to serve openly is “the right thing to do.” He also revealed that he and “[e]verybody in the military” have served with gays and lesbians “and we understand that.”
Staff Sgt. Alva experienced this, as well. Many of his fellow Marines did not treat his sexual orientation as a big deal. Our men and women in uniform understand that in the midst of combat, sexual orientation is not important. It’s whether or not you can do your job that counts.
And that is the most important argument for an end to the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” ban. Our country is in the midst of two active wars, and we need every volunteer that can help the military complete the mission without being excluded, whether on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation.
Louis Caldera is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and was the Secretary of the Army under President Clinton’s administration. Chris Contreras is an intern at the Center for American Progress.