Letter to The Miami Herald: We serve this country honorably, too

We serve this country honorably, too

Don't you think it's time for those who defend our freedoms to finally be able to exercise them? I do. And after 16 years during which thousands of careers and families have been destroyed, and the strength and readiness of our military compromised, there is a burgeoning consensus that the time has come to end the discriminatory ``don't ask, don't tell'' law, which prohibits gays, lesbians and bisexuals from openly serving in our armed forces.

I served as an aircrew instructor aboard the Navy's P-3C Orion aircraft and flew combat missions throughout the Pacific and Indian oceans and the Persian Gulf. Despite being rated in the top 10 percent of all Navy instructors, I was kicked out of the Navy after ``coming out'' on a national news broadcast as part of an effort to stop a witch hunt against other gay, lesbian and bisexual service members.

Fortunately, my discharge occurred shortly before ``don't ask, don't tell'' became law, and a federal court reinstated me, allowing me to serve for another four years openly gay. It was the most rewarding four years of my career. My crew flew combat missions over the Persian Gulf and was recognized by the Navy as the most combat effective in the Pacific Fleet. I was also awarded the Navy Achievement Medal. I am the first openly gay man to retire from active duty with full military honors. I know firsthand that openly gay service members contribute positively to the success of the mission.

Under ``don't ask, don't tell'' I would have been unfairly kicked out of the Navy for good -- just like the more than 13,000 other dedicated military personnel who have had their careers cut short since the law's inception in 1993. Those discharged include Arabic linguists, medics and others who held critical skills vital to national security.

A growing majority agree that a soldier's sexual orientation should have no bearing on whether they are allowed to serve. According to a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted in May, 69 percent of Americans now support allowing openly gay men and women to serve in the military. Even Colin Powell, who authored the law, has called for it to be reviewed.

As a Florida native and current Miamian, I am proud that today there is real momentum for repeal right here in our state. Nine members of Florida's congressional delegation ranging from Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Miami) to Democrat Kathy Castor (Tampa) have co-sponsored HR 1283, the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, which would repeal this unjust, discriminatory law. In addition to Ros-Lehtinen, South Florida cosponsors include Reps. Alcee Hastings, Kendrick Meek, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Robert Wexler (neither of the Diaz-Balart brothers has signed on). And thanks to the hard work of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, city governments, the latest being Miami, are passing resolutions in support of repeal.

Since taking over as HR 1283's chief sponsor last month, Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., aggressively has pursued repeal of a law that he says ``hinders national security and military readiness at a time when America is fighting in two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.'' Murphy points to the enormous waste of taxpayer dollars -- $60,000 to train each of the 13,000 soldiers discharged thus far under the law -- as further reason to repeal ``don't ask, don't tell'' sooner rather than later. Murphy himself is an Iraq war veteran, the first veteran of that war to be elected to Congress.

My hope is that a repeal of this policy will allow many other gay, lesbian and bisexual service members to follow in my footsteps. From a practical standpoint, it doesn't work: it weakens our armed forces and costs taxpayers millions of dollars. More important, it is fundamentally and morally wrong.

Keith Meinhold, petty officer 1st class, U.S. Navy (Ret.), lives in Miami.


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