Politics

South Florida activists cheer vote to rescind `don't ask, don't tell'

The Senate voted 65-31 Saturday to end the Pentagon's ``don't ask, don't tell'' policy on gays and lesbians in the military, as President Barack Obama declared ``it is time to close this chapter in our history.''

Florida's Democratic senator, Bill Nelson, voted for repeal, while his Republican counterpart, George LeMieux, voted against.

The move was hailed by South Florida gays active in fighting the ban on serving while openly gay, a restriction that dates back to the presidency of Bill Clinton. Some military leaders and combat troops expressed concerns about morale and unit cohesion if the policy was rescinded, as did the Senate's most prominent military veteran, Sen. John McCain.

``There will be high fives all over the liberal bastions of America, and we'll see [on] the talk shows tomorrow, a bunch of people talking about how great it is,'' said McCain, an Arizona Republican. ``Most of them have never served in the military or maybe not even known someone in the military.''

The measure was approved earlier by the House of Representatives with the support of some South Florida Republicans, including Miami Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart.

``It's a good day for the military. Now it's in the hands of the president and the Pentagon. My hope is that they don't screw it up and make a bunch of special rules, that they lift the ban and treat everyone the same,'' said Keith Meinhold, 48, of Miami Shores, who served 16 years in the Navy and came out on the cover of Newsweek in 1992.

Added Walker Burttschell, 28, of Miami Beach, who enlisted in the Marines the day after 9/11 and was expelled two years later under ``don't ask, don't tell'': ``I feel like a lot of weight has been lifted off my shoulders. For all my friends who are still serving. They don't have to lie. They can serve with honor and pride, without living a double life.''

Obama left no doubt he will sign the bill and push to implement the new policy.

``By ending `don't ask, don't tell,' no longer will our nation be denied the service of thousands of patriotic Americans forced to leave the military, despite years of exemplary performance, because they happen to be gay,'' he said. ``And no longer will many thousands more be asked to live a lie in order to serve the country they love.''

Repeal comes over the opposition of a majority of Republican senators, led by McCain, a Vietnam-era prisoner of war.

On the final vote, eight Republicans -- Richard Burr of North Carolina, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, George Voinovich of Ohio, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, John Ensign of Nevada and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine -- joined 55 Democrats and two independents in backing the measure.

MOVING QUICKLY

Obama's signature will not mean instant repeal, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates pledged Saturday to move quickly.

``Once this legislation is signed into law by the president, the Department of Defense will immediately proceed with the planning necessary to carry out this change carefully and methodically, but purposefully,'' he said after the vote.

The effort will be led by Dr. Clifford Stanley, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness and himself a retired Marine Corps major general and infantry officer.

Under the legislation, Gates explained, repeal will take effect once the president, the secretary of defense and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff certify that implementation of the new policies and regulations written by the department ``is consistent with the standards of military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention of the Armed Forces.''

The Pentagon has said it could take up to a year to implement the new policy.

The House passed the bill Wednesday, and Saturday's Senate passage was smoothed by a 63-33 vote earlier in the day to limit debate.

The Defense Department earlier this month reported that in an eight-month study of more than 115,000 military personnel, 70 percent said ending the ban on gays serving openly would have a positive or neutral impact.

But combat unit personnel were more skeptical, as 58 percent of Marines and 48 percent of Army respondents said ending the ban would have negative consequences. A substantial minority also said repeal could affect morale, training and whether they would stay in the military. Marines voiced the loudest opposition, the survey found.

`TOUGH' ASSIGNMENT

Opponents said the survey illustrates why the policy should not be overturned.

But proponents of repeal said forcing a segment of the military to hide its sexual orientation was discriminatory and hypocritical.

Burttschell said serving in the military while closeted is ``tough.''

``You have to watch every word you say, everywhere you go, everyone you say hello to. Then you get to a point in your career when you have to have a spouse. When you get to a certain rank it's expected,'' he said.

It wasn't always that way, said Maritza Bedoya, 55, of Fort Lauderdale. She said she served openly in the Army from 1974 to '78, in the days before ``don't ask, don't tell.''

``No one asked me, but I told. I was never afraid to tell people who I was,'' said Bedoya. ``It's such a wonderful feeling to know that our youth do not have to hide. They can actually serve this country with pride.''

David Lightman is a Washington correspondent for McClatchy newspapers. Steve Rothaus is a Miami Herald staff writer and writes the blog Gay South Florida.

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