By Terri Moon Cronk
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
WASHINGTON, June 9, 2015 – Embracing diversity and inclusion is critical to recruiting and retaining the force of the future, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said at the Pentagon’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month event today.
Speaking at the fourth annual celebration since the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that prohibited homosexuals from serving openly in the military, the secretary said the Defense Department must be diverse, open and tolerant to attract the best and brightest people to the national defense mission, garnering applause from military and civilian leaders and White House representatives in the Pentagon auditorium.
The 2011 repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” followed years of gay and lesbian service members having to hide who they were, Carter said. “Today,” he added, “we take pride in how they’re free to serve their country openly.”
DoD believes no one should serve in silence and everyone should be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve, Carter said, noting the department has made a “lasting commitment to living the values we defend.”
The Defense Department must be a meritocracy, the secretary said. “We have to focus relentlessly on the mission, which means the thing that matters most about a person is what they can contribute to it,” he added.
Equal Opportunity Policy Adds Sexual Orientation
It is a commitment DoD must continually renew, the secretary said.
“And that’s why today I’m proud to announce that the Department of Defense has completed the process for updating its military equal opportunity policy to include sexual orientation, ensuring that the department, like the rest of the federal government, treats sexual-orientation-based discrimination the same way it treats discrimination based on race, religion, color, sex, age, and national origin,” he said to an applauding audience.
Emphasizing that he is “very proud” of the work the military services have put into the policy in the last several months, Carter said “discrimination of any kind has no place in America’s armed forces.”
History Bears Long Service of Gays, Lesbians
Gays and lesbians have long served the nation in uniform, and stories that illustrate their willingness to serve and sacrifice number in the thousands, Carter said.
Army Cpl. Lloyd Darling was a Green Beret who died while serving in Vietnam in 1968. His fellow soldiers knew he was gay, and they never forgot his courage under fire amid heavy fighting near the Mekong Delta when the unit was overrun, Carter noted, while Darling stayed back to cover their retreat to safety.
“Years later, one of his battle buddies said, ‘He died for us,’” the secretary said.
Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Eric Alva was the first American wounded just hours after the Iraq invasion began in 2003. “Staff Sergeant Alva gave his right leg serving our country, even as he was required to hide his sexual orientation,” Carter said.
And Army Staff Sgt. Tracy Dice Johnson of the North Carolina National Guard became a war widow after her wife, Army Staff Sgt. Donna Johnson, was killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan in 2012.
“Tracy continues to serve our country in uniform, and she’s now receiving the same survivor benefits as every other family of America’s fallen patriots,” the secretary said, noting that her story is “emblematic of a deep and abiding commitment in recent years – both in this department, and across the country – to recognizing gay and lesbian marriages and families in full accordance with the law.”
Recognizing Family Values for All
Carter noted that Defense Department officials work hard to ensure everyone receives the benefits to which they are entitled. “We have been, and remain, strongly committed to making sure that all our military families and spouses can fully and equally receive the benefits their loved ones have earned, from TRICARE [military health plan] coverage to housing allowances to side-by-side burial at Arlington [National Cemetery],” he said.
And when some states wouldn’t issue DoD ID cards to same-sex spouses at National Guard facilities, he added, “we pushed back -- not just because our service members and their families deserved it, but because everyone’s rights had to be protected.”
Begin From Point of Inclusivity
Recognizing that DoD’s openness to diversity is what has allowed it to be the best, everyone in the department must ensure that those who are able and willing to serve have the full and equal opportunity to do so, the secretary emphasized. “And we must start from a position of inclusivity, not exclusivity,” he added. “Anything less is not just wrong -- it’s bad defense policy, and it puts our future strength at risk.”
Developing the military’s future leaders, innovators and strategists also requires the Defense Department to be inclusive, Carter said.
“While we don’t know who they’ll be or what they’ll look like, we do know they could come from anywhere,” he said. “It takes decades to grow our senior military leaders, and today, we can’t afford to close ourselves off to anyone. As we remind ourselves how diversity and inclusion help make us stronger, we must also remember another reason why they’re important: because they’re part of our national character.”
Gay and lesbian service members who once desired to serve openly were not aberrant or counter to the ideals that the U.S. military has always defended, Carter said. Those ideals are the same ones enshrined in the nation’s founding documents, he said -- “the belief that we’re all created equal, endowed with unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The sacrifices that Darling, Alva and Johnson made -- sacrifices of life, limb, and love -- are no different from those that have long been made by Americans in uniform willing to defend the country and its ideals and help make a better world, Carter said.
“And whether they fall in combat, or go on to live a long life, in the end the earth makes no distinction in its embraces of our honored patriots, and neither should we,” he added. “So as we celebrate LGBT Pride Month, let us take pride in all who step forward to serve our country -- past, present, and future. As fellow citizens, we honor them, thank them [and] cherish them, today and always.”