WASHINGTON -- U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have urged Congress to repeal the current policy of silence on gays in the military, known as "don't ask, don't tell."
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mullen was passionate in his support for the repeal, saying the current policy puts an unbearable moral burden on young men and women who are volunteering to risk their lives for their country.
"It is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do," Mullen told senators. "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. For me personally, it comes down to integrity -- theirs as individuals, and ours as an institution."
Under the policy, enacted by Congress in 1983, homosexual men and women may join the American armed services as long as they don't acknowledge that they're gay. Under the policy, no member of the military -- not even a superior officer -- can demand to know a service member's sexual orientation.
President Barack Obama wants this policy repealed so that gays can serve openly in the U.S military. The Defense Department is beginning a yearlong study into how that repeal can be accomplished without creating problems in the nation's armed services.
A majority of Americans want to see the ban repealed. A 2008 Pew poll found that 59 percent of Americans favor allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly. A Zogby poll from 2006 found that 75 percent of Iraq and Afghan war veterans were comfortable serving alongside gay counterparts.
At the hearing, Democratic Senator Carl Levin (Michigan) -- a supporter of the repeal -- noted that other countries, including NATO allies, have permitted openly gay soldiers to serve for years without experiences what supporters of the ban say are potential problems with discipline and morale.
"Other nations have allowed gay and lesbian service members to serve in their militaries without discrimination and without impact on unit cohesion or morale," Levin said. "A comprehensive study on this was conducted by [think tank] in 1993: RAND researchers reported on the positive experiences of Canada, France, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, and Norway, all of which allowed known homosexuals to serve in their armed forces."
Indeed, according to the University of California, 25 countries allow openly gay citizens to serve in the military.
The push to allow homosexual men and women to serve opening in the U.S. military has been bolstered recently by circumstances. Multiple overseas commitments have stretched the ranks of the U.S. military thin and recruitment is down.
Second, various branches of the U.S. armed services have discharged some of their most valuable assets -- Arab-speaking translators -- for acknowledging their homosexuality
One of those was Dan Choi, a graduate of the country's prestigious West Point Military Academy and an Iraqi War combat veteran who is fluent in Arabic. After mentioning his sexual orientation in a television interview about the ban, the military discharged him. His appeal is still pending.
At the hearing, Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona), who is a Navy veteran, cited studies that he said proved that permitting open homosexuals in the military can create problems, including what he called "forced intimacy," and that homosexuals in military units can weaken unit cohesion.
McCain said the policy being promoted by the Obama administration is at odds with what many American military leaders want and said he wanted to see report on how what he called "a risky policy change" would impact the military.
Other Republicans on the committee complained that both Gates and Mullen were speaking as if the Pentagon's study weren't meant to explore a change so much as how to change it, as if the final decision already had been made.
"Your statement is, 'The question before us is not whether the military prepares to make this change, but how we best prepare for it,'" McCain asked Mullen. "It'd be far more appropriate -- I say with great respect -- to determine whether repeal of this law is appropriate and what effects it would have on the readiness and effectiveness of the military before deciding on whether we should repeal the law or not. And fortunately it is an act of Congress, and it requires the agreement of Congress in order to repeal it."
Gates replied that he had no intention of bypassing Congress but rather was operating under the assumption that "don't ask, don't tell" will be repealed. He said he wants to make sure the Pentagon is ready for the change when it comes.
In the meantime, he said, the Defense Department will examine all aspects of such a change and keep Congress informed so it can ultimately write the bill repealing the ban.
"I think the purpose of the examination that we're undertaking, frankly, is to inform the decision-making of the Congress and the nature of whatever legislation takes place," Gates said. "It's also, frankly, to be prepared to begin to implement any change in the law. We obviously recognize that this is up to Congress, and my view is, frankly, that it's critical that this matter be settled by a vote of the Congress."
Mullen got a similar question from Senator Jeff Sessions (Republican, Alabama). Sessions said Mullen's support for allowing homosexuals to openly serve in the military was so passionate that it seemed to predetermine the outcome of any bill Congress might eventually be debating.
"This is about leadership, and I take that very, very seriously," Mullen replied.