Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Defense Secretary Robert Gates (left) and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen arrive on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday to testify before a Senate Armed Services Committee.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates (left) and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen arrive on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday to testify before a Senate Armed Services Committee. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
The nation's top uniformed officer told lawmakers on Tuesday that repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that bans openly gay people from serving in the military is "the right thing to do."
"No matter how I look at the issue," Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen said, "I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens."
His statement followed an announcement that the Pentagon would review the law with an eye to repealing it.
Mullen, who appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee alongside Defense Secretary Robert Gates, emphasized that he was speaking for himself in calling for an end to the controversial policy, which dates back to 1993.
"For me, personally, it comes down to integrity — theirs as individuals and ours as an institution," Mullen said.
Review Of Policy Ordered
Gates told lawmakers that he has ordered the Pentagon to conduct a yearlong study on revising "don't ask, don't tell", but that in the meantime, he would seek recommendations in the next 45 days to make the existing policy "more appropriate and fair to our men and women in uniform."
Gates said Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson and Gen. Carter Ham, who leads Army forces in Europe, would be in charge of the yearlong assessment.
"The question is not whether the military will make this change, but how they will make this change," he told the gathered senators.
In his testimony, Mullen said that he and his fellow chiefs of staff "are in complete support of the policy outlined by the secretary."
But Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the ranking Republican on the panel, fired back, questioning Mullen's statement and asking that each of the chiefs' views be "on the record."
McCain said he was "deeply disappointed" by the decision to launch the study. He called the move "clearly biased," because it presumes the law should be changed. He chastised Gates for trying to change the policy "by fiat."
Gates later told the committee that he agreed that ultimately the policy would have to be changed by Congress. Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin suggested that a policy change could be accomplished as an amendment to the Defense Authorization bill.
McCain defended the current policy, saying he was "enormously proud and thankful for every American that chooses to put on a uniform and serve."
"Has this policy been ideal? No, it has not. But it has been effective," the Vietnam veteran and former Republican presidential nominee said. "It is well understood and predominantly supported by our fighting men and women. And it has sustained unit cohesion and unit morale, while still allowing gay and lesbian Americans to serve."
Gay Rights Groups Call For Permanent End To Policy
Gay rights activists have supported the president's promise to change the current policy, under which gay and lesbian service members can be dismissed if their sexual orientation is revealed.
Aubrey Sarvis, the executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an advocacy group for gay and lesbian troops, lauded Gates' short-term review but said that the larger policy needs to be abolished.
"Yes, we should bring down the number of these discharges to zero," he told NPR. "But ultimately, we will still have a 'don't ask, don't tell' statute on the books unless Congress repeals it.
"While this secretary and this administration may be committed to reducing discharges under 'don't ask, don't tell,' that may not be true of the next secretary or the next administration," he said.
Mullen acknowledged "that there will be some disruption in the force, I cannot deny," adding that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were already putting a lot of stress on service members.
"Should the law change, we need to move forward in a way that does not add to that stress," he told the committee.
Assessing Ways To End Ban, Extend Benefits
The senior-level study would recommend the best way to lift the ban, starting from the premise that the goal will take time to accomplish, but that it can be done without harming the capabilities or cohesion of the military force, he said.
The review would consider revisions of housing, benefits and fraternization that would come with allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly.
"This will represent a fundamental change in personnel policies," Gates said.
According to Pentagon figures released Monday, fewer gay and lesbian service members were dismissed under the current policy in 2009 than at any time in the last decade — a trend that started in 2001, as the war on terrorism got under way.
According to those figures, 428 service members in 2009 were fired for being openly gay, compared with 619 in 2008. In 1997, 997 service members were dismissed. Overall, more than 10,900 troops have been fired under the policy.
In addition to addressing the military's policy on gays, Gates and Mullen outlined the military's $768 billion budget for 2011, and another $33 billion requested in war spending this year.
With reporting by NPR's Scott Neuman and Tom Bowman. Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.