“I believe if we get a Democratic President we’ll get rid of the ban. The younger generation doesn’t care one bit.”

That is the hope Joan Darrah expressed to Time magazine this week – the retired Navy captain, and lesbian, served from 1972 to 2002.

She is not alone.

Millions of Americans are hoping that the next resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will abolish a policy that stops openly gay people from serving in the US Army Forces.

The issue has been featured in at least two Presidential primary debates aired on CNN – where all of the Democratic candidates were in favour of repeal and all of the Republican candidates opposed.

The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on lesbian, gay and bisexual service members states that commanders may not ask the sexual orientation of service members.

Gay men and lesbians can only continue to serve only if they do not engage in homosexual acts, and keep their sexual orientation a secret.

As a Presidential candidate, Bill Clinton had promised to allow gays to serve, but was forced to accept the compromise policy in 1994 in the face of military and Congressional opposition to his policy.

DADT continues to be an issue in the present Clinton run for the White House.

Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, has been lambasted by gay activists for giving warm speeches to gay groups and then not publicising her appearances.

Senator Clinton, her main opponent Senator Barack Obama and Mr Edwards have all publicly called for DADT to be repealed by Congress.

Senators Clinton and Obama last year dodged direct verbal questions on whether homosexuality is immoral, then released statements to the press later saying it is not.

Many gay Democrats were unhappy that both the main candidates seemed reluctant to say in front of TV cameras that homosexuality is moral.

According to a recent Harris poll, 55 percent of Americans now support repealing DADT.

A December 2006 Zogby poll of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan found that 73 percent of soldiers reported being “comfortable … in the presence of gays,” and only 37 percent oppose repealing the policy.

Many military officials, including General John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Clinton, now believe that gays should be allowed to serve openly.

Legislation to repeal this discriminatory policy was introduced last spring in the House of Representatives. It currently has 136 co-sponsors.

However, that will be of little comfort to the more than 11,000 troops have been dismissed under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), nearly 800 of those dismissed had skills deemed ‘mission-critical’ by the Department of Defence, including more than 300 language specialists, of which 85 were proficient in Arabic.

The cost to U.S. taxpayers for maintaining the ban is estimated at more than $363 million (£182.6m).