home about media center archive history letters subscribe

Representative Joe Sestak

Retired Admiral turned Congressman
fighting to end Don't Ask, Don't Tell

by Julianne Sohn

He packed away his Navy uniform, but is still actively serving his country in Congress, fighting for equal rights for all in the military.

Congressman Joe Sestak, a Democrat representing the 7th Congressional District of Pennsylvania, spent 31 years serving in the U.S. Navy and retired a three-star admiral.  On July, 23, 2008, he spoke at the House Armed Services Committee hearing on a review of Don't Ask, Don't Tell 15 years after it was introduced as a law.

The congressman was gracious enough to talk to The Gay Military Signal over the phone on August 1, 2008.

The committee decided to revisit Don't Ask, Don't Tell due in part because outside surveys have shown that a certain percentage of men and women in the military are gay.

"I went to war with these people," said Sestak, who led over 15,000 sailors as a former commander of the George Washington aircraft carrier group.  "How can I come home and say they don't deserve equal rights and equal opportunity like everyone else?"

The long-term goal of the hearing was to come up with legislation that would repeal the policy.  Although the congressman said that it was unlikely to happen this session.

"But this is a bipartisan issue, many people believe that it isn't right on both sides of the aisle," he said.  "When I was in the military, I thought it was going to be ruled unconstitutional." 

During Sestak's military career, he occasionally had to deal with the impact of this policy.  It usually came up when an individual in the command came forward and would tell him that they were gay.

"When that would happen, I would say, 'I wish you wouldn't say anything,'" said Sestak.  The policy was law and he was forced to comply. 

"I think this should be an issue in our wake and we should be moving forward," he said. 

Ultimately for Sestak, who was exposed to diverse range of individuals during his time in the military, repealing this policy is a matter of equal rights for all.

"Everyone is a human being and is equal and are due respect, their rights and equal opportunity," he said.  "I don't care about color, gender or orientation, in my mind that is an issue that has nothing to do with what I believe; that "all men and women are created equal.'"

The military should reflect the people it draws upon, said Sestak.  The military led the way in racial integration and with integrating women. 

The hearing focused on the impact of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy on unit cohesion and on recruitment and retention of gay service members.  Among those who spoke out against the policy was retired Marine Sergeant Eric Alva, who was the first service member injured during Operation Iraqi Freedom. 

Sestak, who commanded a battle group during combat operations in Afghanistan prior to the war in Iraq, said that he was surprised the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy has lasted this long.

"We should not be the 'backwater,' we protect the belief that men and women are created equal," said Sestak, who pointed out that the military integrated African Americans in 1948 prior to the modern Civil Rights movement.

 The retired admiral is also a cosponsor for the Military Readiness Enhancement Act (HR 1246), which seeks to overturn the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy and would allow gays to serve openly

  2008  Gay Military Signal