Today, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) will be repealed by the Defense Department, and today forward all Americans will finally be able to serve in our military, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. As a young Navy Captain, I was asked by the Admiral I worked for what I thought of DADT when it became official policy during the Clinton Administration. I now think ruefully about my reply: that I soon expected DADT to be overturned by the Supreme Court on the basis of discrimination. Over the years, I remember a number of instances when a young sailor would approach me to let me know he was gay, intent upon no longer living a lie, and wishing I could say, "Please don't tell me, you're too good and I don't want to lose you."
I had been to war for our nation with such sailors; how could I come home and not believe they deserved equal rights from the country for which they had fought with the same common purpose as their shipmates? But that wasn't the only reason I co-sponsored the legislation to repeal DADT when I later became a Congressman from Pennsylvania. I also did it for the betterment of our military.
I came to understand in the Navy that the best part of our nation's character is that America has always been driven by an alliance of rugged individualism and common enterprise; by people striving for their individual achievement, but never measuring it apart from the greater effort. Ours is the first nation founded on principle, not power. But our nation is built upon the belief that individual principles -- freedom, suffrage, civil rights, equality -- are not attained until they extend to all. It is the success of this long struggle to embody the vision set by our founders for everyone that makes our nation -- our military -- so powerful. It is the recognition that a fair opportunity for all ensures even greater service to our common effort, our common purpose.
Shortly after arriving in the Indian Ocean during the war in Afghanistan, I launched attack planes from the aircraft carrier of my battle group, one of which had a young woman pilot. Over Afghanistan that night, she disregarded a standing order not to dive low without permission. U.S. Special Forces had been ambushed by the Taliban; four were dead and she felt there was no time to ask permission to save the rest. She immediately dove and strafed the enemy, and in her covering fire, the remaining men extracted their dead and themselves.
When I joined up during the Vietnam era, there were no women on aircraft carriers, never mind flying attack aircraft off them. Because woman were later given an individual opportunity to achieve all they might desire in our Navy, our common mission that night in Afghanistan was better and saved U.S. soldiers.
My belief in the repeal of DADT is based upon my experience of the conviction that the more people given a fair opportunity for their own achievement means a greater effort for the common purpose of America. I saw during my 31 years in the Navy that America's success is born out of the basic idea that everyone should contribute to their fullest and should be given the tools and opportunity to do so. This simple notion has been the bedrock of our achievement, where shared opportunity is shared attainment.
This is why September 20 is important: once again we've looked into the national mirror and said "we are better than that." And it is why no one should ever sell short the character of Americans, with our enormous capacity to change and grow for the better. Our courage to face the truth about the need to live up to our best ideals is why America will -- despite any challenge -- always grow stronger and move forward as one, united nation.
Joe Sestak was an Admiral in the U.S. Navy, and a Congressman (PA-07) from 2007-2010, when he ran for the U.S. Senate.
This post also appeared in the Advocate.