The nation’s top military officer said Tuesday that he supported allowing gays to openly serve in the U.S. armed forces, invoking the words of President Obama in calling it “the right thing to do”.
Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff added a powerful and influential voice to the controversial issue of gays in the military, as the Pentagon announced steps to prepare for ending its 17-year-old policy referred to as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“No matter how I look at this issue, 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,” said Mullen.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates told members of the committee that the policy will take over a year to repeal because the Pentagon is looking at various options in order to “get this right and minimize disruption to a force that is actively fighting two wars and working through the stress of almost a decade of combat.”
But the Senate committee’s minority leader John McCain (R-Arizona) and most of his Republican colleagues made clear they were unhappy to hear Gates and Mullen were preparing to follow orders for repealing the policy, signaling that political battle in Congress over the issue is almost certain.
“I fully support the President’s decision,” Gates said, making it clear he was ready act on Obama’s call for repeal.
“The question before us is not whether the military prepares to make this change, but how we best prepare for it,” Gates said. “We have received our orders from the Commander in Chief and we are moving out accordingly.”
Gates said Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson and General Carter Ham, the Army’s top commander in Europe, will lead a year-long review. He said he wants the study to “minimize disruption and polarization within the ranks,” without disturbing troops deployed on the front lines.
But Gates said there would also be a shorter review, lasting only 45 days, to look at ways of easing life for gay people in the military in the interim.
The aim is to make changes that would see existing policy applied “in a more humane and fair manner,” he said.
Democrats at the hearing were supportive of Gates and Mullen.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, supports ending the ban. Following the hearing, Levin said that he had not decided how to approach the issue legislatively, but one possibility was to include a moratorium on discharges of gay service members in this year’s defense authorization bill.
The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was enacted by President Clinton in 1993 after Congress passed a law that same year banning gays from serving in the military. The policy was a compromise that bars openly gay individuals from serving in the U.S. military, but it also bars the military from asking service members their sexual orientation.
More than 14,000 service members have been dismissed from the U.S. military over the last 17 years after outing themselves or being outed.
Last week, during his State of the Union address, President Obama called for the repeal of the policy.