Commentary: It's time to end 'Don't ask, don't tell'

I'm not sure if my father was drafted into the Army in World War II or if he enlisted. But one thing I'm sure of is that he looked back on those days with a degree of frustration.

Once, during the civil rights movement, he spoke of the indignity he felt knowing this country would allow a German, an enemy this country had fought, to buy a house in a white neighborhood when he couldn't.

My father didn't dwell on it. It was the law of the land.

But it was hurtful to the patriot in him to have his country disrespect him that way.

I mention that to remind all of us that there was a time when black soldiers weren't appreciated by their country, by politicians or even by their fellow soldiers any more than gay soldiers are today.

They were accused of cowardice, of being less intelligent and of being unworthy of serving shoulder-to-shoulder with white soldiers.

We all now know that to be false.

Why are we now doing the same thing to gays?

President Barack Obama is advocating the end of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" military policy that prohibits asking about a soldier's sexual preferences. If a gay or lesbian soldier was discovered somehow, however, he or she would be asked to voluntarily leave the military or be discharged.

All because the soldier is homosexual, as if that is an indicator of his or her patriotism or bravery.

Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress this week that the policy should be repealed.

"No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens," Mullen said.

That blew my mind.

From what I've heard on talk radio and on various TV talk shows from those who oppose repealing the policy, having openly gay soldiers in the military would mark the end of the best armed services in the world. Straight soldiers wouldn't be able to concentrate on saving this country from aggression if they served next to gay ones.

Gerard Badger of Lexington, a retired sergeant who served 20 years in the Army, including two tours of duty in Vietnam, said he doesn't understand it.

"Gays have always been in the military," he said. "I served with them. It doesn't make any difference to me."

Badger said he sees a similarity in how gays are treated now and how black soldiers were treated before and during WWII. The military said blacks had poor night vision and couldn't be gunners, Badger said, adding that some officials claimed blacks couldn't fight at all.

Claims like that relegated some black seamen in the Navy to cleaning, cooking or shoe-shining duties.

The fact that many black soldiers distinguished themselves during the war didn't really change a lot of opinions.

But President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order in July 1948, near the end of what appeared would be his last year in office, that stated, "It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin."

The last segregated regiment in this country was disbanded in 1954, months after the Korean War ended.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, a presidential historian, said only after black and white soldiers fought "side-by-side first in the WWII Battle of the Bulge, then in Korea" were people convinced an integrated military was possible. "Reality in the situation made it work, but people's fears had to be overcome."

So if gays have served in the military before, I don't understand the problem. Badger said it is not a soldier's sexual orientation or race that we should worry about.

"Will he back me up?" Badger said. "That's the question. Does he have my back?"

And if gay soldiers have fought well for so many years, if they have had our backs, why don't we have theirs?