The top U.S. military officer has endorsed President Barack Obama's desire to integrate open homosexuals into the U.S. military. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, told Congress Tuesday he believes it is "the right thing to do," after Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced the creation of a commission to study the issue and make a formal plan.
Admiral Mullen had not previously expressed his personal views on open homosexuals serving in the U.S. military, so his statement was striking. "It is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do. No matter how I look at this issue, I can not escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy that 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."
Admiral Mullen has enormous influence among members of the military, and is the senior military adviser to the president. One senator accused him of exerting an undue influence on this process by expressing his opinion so strongly. The admiral took a different view. "For me, this is not about command influence, this is about leadership. And I take that very seriously," he said.
Admiral Mullen said he believes the troops would accept the integration of openly homosexual colleagues, but the admiral also endorsed the plan for a high level commission to study how to do that, and what the impact on military preparedness would be. Secretary Gates said that will be a key focus of the commission, which will be led by the defense department's top civilian lawyer and a four-star Army general.
"The working group will examine the potential impacts of a change in the law on military effectiveness, including how a change might affect unit cohesion, recruiting and retention, and other issues crucial to the performance of the force. The working group will develop ways to mitigate and manage any negative impacts," he said.
Gates said a key goal "will be to minimize disruption and polarization in the ranks," particularly on the front lines.
The secretary acknowledged the Congress will have the final word on the issue, but he said for the administration, the question is not whether to change the policy, but how to make the change. He said the defense department has received its orders from President Obama and is "moving out accordingly." But he said the study will take 11 months and implementation at least a year, and that will only happen if the Congress changes the law.
Current law enables homosexual men and women to serve in the military if they keep their sexual preference a secret. Under the law, known as Don't Ask Don't Tell, service members can be discharged if commanders find out they are homosexuals, but commanders and recruiters do not ask about sexual preference as a matter of routine.
About 800 people are discharged from the U.S. military for homosexuality every year. As part of Tuesday's announcement, Secretary Gates said the Defense Department has determined it can be more lenient in enforcing the law, and he has asked for a detailed proposal from his staff within 45 days.
At the hearing, some members of the Senate Armed Services Committee endorsed the plan to integrate open homosexuals into the military, including the chairman, Senator Carl Levin. "Ending the policy would improve our military's capability and reflect our commitment to equal opportunity. I agree with what President Obama said in his State of the Union Address, that we should repeal this discriminatory policy," he said.
But other members strongly opposed the plan, including Republican Senator John McCain, a Navy veteran, who lost the 2008 presidential election to President Obama. He said this is the wrong time to put additional stress on the force and to, in his view, put the effectiveness of the U.S. military at risk. "Has this policy been ideal? No. But it has been effective. It has helped to balance a potentially disruptive tension between the desires of a minority and the broader interests of our all-volunteer force," he said.
Senator McCain acknowledged homosexuals serve "admirably" in the U.S. military, but he said the current law enables them to do so without disrupting the force.
Admiral Mullen picked up on that point. "I have served with homosexuals since 1968. Senator McCain spoke to that in his statement, everybody in the military has. But I also want to reemphasize what I said - I am not all-knowing in terms of the impact, and any impact, and understanding readiness and effectiveness [aspect], is absolutely critical," he said.
The admiral also chided some advocates on both sides of the issue, saying they speak as if there is no debate and nothing to be learned or considered regarding this issue. He said the Defense Department's review will be more thoughtful than that.