WASHINGTON — The military's top uniformed officer declared Tuesday that gays should be allowed to serve openly in uniform, arguing that it is "the right thing to do."
Adm. Mike Mullen's statement was the strongest yet from the uniformed military on this volatile issue, although he stressed that he was "speaking for myself and myself only."
He told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday he is deeply troubled by a policy that forces people to "lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens."
Mullen said he knows many will disagree about abandoning the "don't ask, don't tell" policy and said there are practical obstacles to lifting the 1993 ban. But he said he thinks the military can handle it. Mullen is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and chief military adviser to President Barack Obama.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the panel he is tapping his chief legal adviser and a four-star Army general to lead a landmark study on how the military would lift its ban on openly gay service members.
Pentagon counsel Jeh Johnson and Gen. Carter Ham, who leads Army forces in Europe, will conduct the yearlong assessment.
Sen. John McCain, the ranking committee Republican, publicly bristled at the Pentagon's decision to launch a yearlong study into allowing gays to serve, saying he is "deeply disappointed" and calling the assessment "clearly biased" because it presumes the law should be changed.
McCain, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said the current policy is not ideal, but that it has been effective.
McCain said he wanted to hear more from the military on this issue. But Gates suggested that lawmakers keep the intensity of debate in tow until the military can get a better handle on how to proceed. He told the panel: "Keep the impact it will have on our forces firmly in mind."
Ham is a former enlisted infantryman who rose through the ranks to eventually command troops in northern Iraq in 2004 and hold senior positions within the Joint Staff. Recently, he helped conduct an investigation into the shootings by a soldier at the Fort Hood Army base in Texas. Video: Gates supports repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell'
As the Pentagon's top legal counsel, Johnson has played an integral role into the effort to try to close the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Gates' announcement marked a measured step toward Obama's goal of eliminating the military's policy against gays, which is based on a 1993 law.
Under the policy, engaging in homosexual conduct — even if you don't tell anyone — can been enough to qualify a person for dismissal.
The law was intended as a compromise between then-President Bill Clinton, who wanted to lift the military's ban on gays entirely, and a reluctant Congress and military that said doing so would threaten order.
According to figures released Monday, the Defense Department last year dismissed the fewest number of service members for violating its the policy than it had in more than a decade. Overall, more than 10,900 troops have been fired under the policy. The 2009 figure — 428 — was dramatically lower than the 2008 total of 619.
End of a dream
David Hall, a former Air Force sergeant, said he was discharged in 2002 after someone else reported that he was gay.
"That ended it," said Hall, who now works for a gay rights advocacy group. "Just like that, based off what one person said, ended my dream of getting to fly planes."
In addition to addressing the military's policy on gays, Gates and Mullen planned to outline the military's $768 billion budget for 2011 and another $33 billion requested in war spending this year.
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