Foes Protest 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

Twelve thousand miniature flags are fluttering on the National Mall through today to represent the men and women discharged from the military since Bill Clinton in 1993 signed off on the "don't ask, don't tell" compromise -- a policy that requires gays and lesbians conceal their sexual orientation or leave the military.

The flags, placed by volunteers, cover six football fields of space in view of the Capitol building and the Washington monument.

Nov. 30 marked the anniversary of "don't ask, don't tell," and the start of a weekend of demonstrations in Washington.

"It's time to have a visual example of how many people that we've lost," said Antonio Agnone, primary organizer of the events and former U.S. Marine who voluntarily left his post because of the stress of serving under 'don't ask, don't tell.' "And [it's] also [time] to say thank you to all these men and women for their service."

The weekend events, organized by the Human Rights Campaign, Servicemembers United, the Log Cabin Republicans, the Liberty Education Forum and the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, was to conclude today with a military chaplain's prayer service on the National Mall at 11 a.m.

On Friday, 28 retired admirals and generals released a letter calling on Congress to rethink "don't ask, don't tell."

"We respectfully urge Congress to repeal the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy," read the letter, which was read as part of this weekend's ceremonies. "Those of us signing this letter have dedicated our lives to defending the rights of our citizens to believe whatever they wish."

It claims "scholarly data" counts 65,000 gays and lesbians currently serving in the armed forces and references Britain and Israel, two places where gay and lesbian soldiers serve openly.

The signers are in company with Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, who argued against "don't ask, don't tell" in a Jan. 2 opinion piece in The New York Times. Shalikashvili was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when the policy was adopted.

Meanwhile, Republican and Democratic candidates for president remain sharply divided along party lines over the possibility of repealing the policy.

On the campaign trail, Democratic candidates are courting the gay and lesbian vote and are making campaign promises of the policy's demise. All this week, the Web site of the Human Rights Campaign featured new statements daily from most of the current Democratic contenders, with each candidate calling for a removal of the policy.

A Dec. 1 posting from New Mexican Gov. Bill Richardson said that if elected, he "would use executive orders, legislative proposals and personal persuasion with the Congress to reverse this egregious policy."

Conversely, in the Nov. 28 CNN YouTube Debate, the GOP hopefuls widely agreed to leave the policy in place. The debate, which started with a near shouting match between Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney over illegal immigration, hit another dramatic high point when retired Brig. Gen. Keith Kerr asked a video question from his perspective as a now openly gay man who had completed 43 years of military service.

"I want to know why you think that American men and women in uniform are not professional enough to serve with gays and lesbians," Kerr asked in the video shot at his home in Santa Rosa, Calif.

In response, Republican candidates Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, John McCain and Duncan Hunter all agreed they supported the current policy.

McCain said he's following the word of the military commanders.

"They tell me that this present policy is working, that we have the best military in history, we have the bravest, most professional, best-prepared, and that this policy ought to be continued because it's working," McCain said.

Still, activists like Agnone say they think the military is ready to allow gays and lesbians. Agnone referenced a Zogby poll that showed 73 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq claming to be "comfortable" around gays.

"The rank and file has already changed," said Agnone. "Now it's just time to change the law."