Commentary by Cynthia Tucker of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

WASHINGTON — At a time when most major institutions have lost the public admiration they once enjoyed, the U.S. military commands widespread respect. According to recent polls, a substantial majority of Americans have confidence in our armed forces, while few extend that confidence to the White House or Congress.

That may help explain why Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, misled voters about his Vietnam-era service, which he spent stateside in the Marine Corps Reserve. Politicians are not automatically associated with words such as "courage," "honor" or "integrity." Soldiers are.

But the modern military has struggled to maintain its integrity while bound to a policy that discourages honor and mocks courage: "Don't ask, don't tell." Calling repeal of the policy the "right thing to do," Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told Congress in February: "We have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are. ... For me, personally, it comes down to integrity — theirs as individuals, and ours as institutions."

Mullen's refreshing testimony set the stage for what has followed: The Pentagon is laying the groundwork to rescind the policy, and U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., an Iraq veteran, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., have begun rounding up votes for a congressional repeal. Gays and lesbians could be serving openly by next year.

That's as it should be. "Don't ask, don't tell" was a ham-fisted compromise left over from the Clinton era, a shortsighted policy set in place to appease a Pentagon that was dead-set against allowing its gay and lesbian service members to come out of the closet. It has been costly, forcing out thousands of troops, including badly needed linguists, pilots and combat engineers.

But much has changed in the 17 years since then-President Clinton bowed to Pentagon resistance and backed away from his campaign promise to open the closet door. The country has increasingly accepted gays and lesbians as part of the great American mainstream; they are neighbors, co-workers, fellow church members and heads of the local PTA.

A whopping 78 percent of Americans believe that gay and lesbian troops should be able to serve their country openly, according to a recent CNN poll, including a majority of Republicans. Supporters also include a number of distinguished retired military officers who have lent their names to the campaign to retire "Don't ask."

There are still voices of opposition. Sen. John McCain's stance puts him at odds with the godfather of Arizona conservatism, the late Barry Goldwater, who once said, "You don't have to be straight to be in the military; you just have to be able to shoot straight." Still, as Atlanta attorney and gay-rights activist Jeff Cleghorn notes, "The voices that are against us are few and not nearly as hateful as they were in '93," when he was an Army intelligence officer serving at the Pentagon.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has insisted that the Pentagon be allowed to finish its report on the ways in which a policy shift might affect "unit cohesion" and "readiness" before "Don't ask" is assigned to the dustbin. That seems appropriate, since commanding officers will need to provide leadership to rein in any homophobes.

But it's unlikely that there will be more than a few of those. Younger troops have grown up in a culture of diversity and tolerance; most already know that some of their uniformed colleagues are gay.

When "Don't ask" is repealed, the military will be able to hold on to officers like Cleghorn, who said he left after 11 years, having obtained the rank of major, because of the Army's "anti-gay policies." He's not the only good soldier the military has lost to its misguided notions of honor. What's honorable about insisting that troops hide who they are?

Cynthia Tucker is a political writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a nationally syndicated columnist. She can be reached at cynthia@ajc.com.