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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. A survey recently asked Americans the following question:

AMOS: Do you think homosexuals who do publicly disclose their sexual orientation should be allowed to serve in the military?

INSKEEP: In that Washington Post/ABC survey, 75 percent of Americans said yes. They approve of openly gay American troops. That survey comes just as Congress reconsiders the military policy known as don't ask, don't tell. The military isn't supposed to investigate gays, but has expelled 12,000 since the 1990s.

A hearing on that issue coincided with an anniversary, President Truman's desegregation of the military 60 years ago. NPR's David Welna has more.

(Soundbite of song, "God Bless America")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) God bless America…

DAVID WELNA: Lawmakers, administration officials and African-American veterans sang together in the Capitol Rotunda yesterday. They'd just heard from the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, who proclaimed we are all created equal with inalienable rights.

General COLIN POWELL (Former Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): And we have to make sure that those rights, those inalienable rights, belong to all Americans. Thank you, God bless you, and thank Harry Truman.

WELNA: California House Democrat Susan Davis was at that commemoration. Hours later, she cited it as she chaired the first post don't ask, don't tell hearing ever.

Representative SUSAN DAVID (Democrat, California): I couldn't help but just change some of the words that were being stated about how important it is for us to have equal treatment under the law.

WELNA: Davis was unable to persuade anyone from the Pentagon to testify at the hearing. But the Armed Services panel did hear from a straight, retired African-American Army major general, Vance Coleman. He compared today's official policy against gays in the military to the segregation he encountered enlisting in 1947.

Major General VANCE COLEMAN (US Army, Retired): It's bewildering and counterintuitive to me that we maintain a federal law that says no matter how well a person does his or her job, no matter how integral they are to their unit, they must be removed, disrespected and dismissed because of who they happen to be or who they happen to love.

WELNA: Another witness, retired Navy intelligence Captain Joan Darrah. She was once secretly gay, but after nearly 30 years in the military, she had an epiphany after leaving an area of the Pentagon minutes before it was obliterated on September 11th, 2001.

Captain JOAN DARRAH (US Navy, Retired): The reality is that if I had been killed, my partner then of 11 years would have been the last to know, as I had not dared to list her name in any of my paperwork or on any of my emergency contact information. It was the events of September 11th that made me realize that don't ask, don't tell was taking a much greater toll than I had ever admitted.

WELNA: Darrah then retired from the Navy a year earlier than planned.

Also testifying was former Marine Sergeant Eric Alva, a gay man visited by President Bush after losing a leg to a landmine, the first U.S. casualty in the Iraq invasion.

Sergeant ERIC ALVA (US Marines, Retired): That landmine may have put an end to my military career that day, but it didn't put an end to my secret. That would come years later, when I realized that I had fought and nearly died to secure the rights for others that I myself was not free to enjoy. I had proudly served a country that was not proud of me.

WELNA: Taking the opposite side was another witness, retired Army Sergeant Brian Jones.

Sergeant BRIAN JONES (US Army, Retired): With all the important issues that require attention, it is difficult to understand why a minority faction is demanding that their concerns be given priority over more important issues.

WELNA: Jones got a sharp comeback from Connecticut Republican Chris Shays.

Representative CHRIS SHAYS (Republican, Connecticut): We know that gays have served in every conflict in our country. They've served in every war, and we know that gays have given their lives for everyone in this room. So Sergeant Jones, that's why we're having this hearing.

WELNA: Also arguing against allowing gays in the military was Elaine Donnelly, who heads the Center for Military Readiness.

Ms. ELAINE DONNELLY (Center for Military Readiness): We would lose thousands of people if they were told under a zero-tolerance policy that you must accept the new paradigm, which is forced cohabitation of men and women with homosexuals in the military.

WELNA: That brought this from California Democrat Ellen Tauscher, who is sponsoring legislation to repeal don't ask, don't tell.

Representative ELLEN TAUSCHER (Democrat, California): Contrary to what Ms. Donnelly wants you believe, this is a civil-rights issue. I believe that repealing the don't ask, don't tell policy is probably the last civil rights issue we have.

WELNA: Still, Democrats say Congress won't act on repealing don't ask, don't tell until there's a new president in the White House. David Welna, NPR News.

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