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On the 14th anniversary of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, there is a push to change the policy. Today, more than two dozen former admirals and generals joined the campaign to repeal the law. The rule is supposed to bar gay service members from the military and at the same time prevent the Pentagon from prying into their personal lives. The policy was an uneasy compromise when it went into effect and now it's coming up in the race for the White House.

NPR's Tom Bowman reports.

TOM BOWMAN: Marine Staff Sergeant Eric Alva and his unit raced across the desert in the opening hours of the Iraq War. Stopping to rest near the southern Iraqi city of Basra, Alva stepped on a landmine. The blast cost him his right leg. The Marines who ran to save him also knew his secret - he's gay.

Staff Sergeant ERIC ALVA (U.S. Marine): My comrades knew and we function because come Monday morning at work, we did our jobs like we were supposed to.

BOWMAN: Today, Alva stands on the grassy expanse of the Washington Mall, in front of thousands of tiny American flags, representing the gay and lesbian service members who have been kicked out in the year since Don't Ask, Don't Tell - about 10,000 in all, says the Pentagon.

Staff Sgt. ALVA: When we keep discharging people solely on the basis of their orientation, people who are willing to serve their country, people are starting to realize that we cannot keep oppressing people for who they are.

BOWMAN: Those discharges have continued for more than a decade, little noticed until this year. Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Shalikashvili, earlier this year pressed for repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell on the pages of The New York Times. Gays and lesbians serving openly would not undermine the efficacy of the Armed Forces, the general wrote. That was the initial sticking point for the military. They fear to acknowledge homosexuals would damage morale. The issue came up this week during the CNN Republican presidential debate.

All of the candidates opposed repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell. California Congressman and Army veteran Duncan Hunter spoke out forcefully.

Congressman DUNCAN HUNTER (Republican, California): I believe in what Colin Powell said when he said that having openly homosexual people serving in the ranks would be bad for unit cohesion.

Major General ALEX BURGIN (U.S. Army, Retired): Well, that's the company line and that's what you're going to hear from most leaders that speak from an emotion versus fact.

BOWMAN: That's retired Army Major General Alex Burgin. He was also in the mall today condemning the current policy. He's among 28 former generals and admirals, who have sent a letter to Congress calling for a repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. The officers claim there are about 65,000 gay men and lesbians serving in the Armed Forces. Burgin says the military will eventually accept gays serving openly but struggle with it just as it did when blacks were integrated into what were once all-white units in the late 1940s and women were accepted into the service academies in the 1970s.

Maj. Gen. BURGIN: Yeah, there'll be some issues and there'll be people that can't accept it and the door will be open for them to leave. But the senior leadership, you know what they'll do? They'll salute and they'll try to create a command climate that affects the change because that's their job.

BOWMAN: The debate over gays in the military was unwittingly reignited in the spring by Marine General Peter Pace. He just stepped down as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Pace called homosexuality immoral, similar to adultery. In September, he told Congress he was against the law that would allow professed gays and lesbians to serve.

General PETER PACE (U.S. Marine; Former Chairman, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff): I said that, as a nation, we should not enact laws that may get the law of the land that certain types of activity are acceptable.

BOWMAN: There is a bill in the House that would repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Congressman Joe Sestak is a retired rear admiral and supports the effort.

Representative JOE SESTAK (Democrat, Pennsylvania): I think it's - with the new president, the chances are stands well. It's going to take a president and it's going to take a Congress. It's going to take those to step forward.

BOWMAN: But Sestak says it's something that has to be done.

Rep. SESTAK: I have been to war with these men and women and how can one come home then after they have served the nation in war and say - and how could I say, they don't deserve equal rights.

BOWMAN: Despite the passion of advocates, there is a slim chance anything will change soon. Only a handful of Republicans support the measure in the House and there's still not a companion bill in the Senate.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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