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Gates: gays in military rests with Congress

WASHINGTON (BP)–Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a Senate committee Tuesday his department is moving forward as if the military’s policy excluding openly homosexual members from serving will be reversed, although he acknowledged that Congress will make the final decision.

Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee he has appointed a working group within the Department of Defense to study the “issues associated with properly implementing a repeal.” He also said he fully supports President Obama’s pledge to reverse the policy, often called Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a Vietnam War veteran, led the charge in criticizing Gates’ testimony, saying it is wrong to decide a course of action before first studying what kind of impact a reversal would have on the military. Gates’ words drew mostly criticism from Republicans and applause from Democrats.

In 1993 Congress — controlled by Democrats — passed a law prohibiting homosexuals from serving. McCain was in the Senate at the time.

“It would be far more appropriate … 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,” McCain said. “Fortunately … it requires the agreement of Congress in order to repeal it. Your statement obviously is one which is clearly biased.”

Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the committee that he, too, personally supports allowing homosexuals to serve openly. But not everyone is in agreement with Mullen. One member of the Joint Chiefs, General James Conway, commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, said through a spokesman last November that with the nation at war in two countries, “our focus should not be drawn away from those priorities.” A Washington Times article said Conway, in private, strongly opposes changing current policy. During the hearing McCain pointed to a list of more than 1,100 retired flag and general officers — including two former Joint Chiefs chairmen — who oppose reversing the policy.

“I think we should pay more attention to those who have served who can speak more frankly … than those who are presently serving,” McCain said. “… Numerous military leaders tell me that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is working and that we should not change it now. I agree.”

Obama put the issue back on the national stage during his State of the Union address when he said “this year” he will “work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.”

“The question before us is not whether the military prepares to make this change, but how we best prepare it for it,” Gates said. “We received our orders from the commander-in-chief, and we are moving out accordingly. However, we can only take this process only so far, as the ultimate decision rests with you, the Congress.”

Support for allowing only homosexual service has increased in Congress since 1993 but it’s not known whether it has majority support, particularly in an election year. Sen. Carl Levin, (D-Mich.), acknowledged during the hearing that an amendment repealing the current law could be attached to the Defense Authorization bill, which conceivably could make it easier to pass compared to pushing through a stand-alone bill.

McCain quoted verbatim from the 1993 law during the hearing, focusing on three congressional findings he said must be considered:

— “[A]ctual combat routinely make[s] it necessary for members of the armed forces involuntarily to accept living conditions and working conditions that are often spartan, primitive, and characterized by forced intimacy with little or no privacy.”

— Military life is “fundamentally different from civilian life in that … the military society is characterized by its own laws, rules, customs, and traditions, including numerous restrictions on personal behavior, that would not be acceptable in civilian society.”

— “The essence of military capability” is “good order” and “unit cohesion.”

“I’m eager to hear from our distinguished witnesses what has changed since these findings were written,” McCain said.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and a Marine veteran, previously told Baptist Press the lack of privacy in the military is something that must be considered. He supports the current law.

“Most members of Congress have not served in the military and most of the public has not either,” he said. “They have a hard time understanding the environment. When I was in the Marine Corps there were 60 of us in a squad bay. You shower together. That’s a problematic environment [if the policy is changed to allow homosexuals to serve openly].”

Gates said the working group will study the issue and prepare a report by the end of 2010. He said its mandate is to “thoroughly, objectively and methodically examine” how best to implement a change in policy if the law is reversed.

He also said the Department of Defense is reviewing its regulations and looking for ways to “enforce this policy in a fairer manner.” He said the results from that review are due within 45 days.

“Preliminary assessment,” Gates said, “is that we can do the following within the confines of the existing law: We can raise the level of the officer who is authorized to initiate an inquiry; we can raise the level of the officer who conducts the inquiry; we can raise the bar on what constitutes credible information to initiate an inquiry; we can raise the bar on what constitutes a reliable person and on whose word an inquiry can be initiated. Overall, we can reduce the instances in which a service member who is trying to serve the country honorably is outed by a third person with a motive to harm the service member.”

Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, previously told Baptist Press she was concerned that the military would implement “sensitivity training” regarding the issue of homosexuality. Gates seemed to acknowledge that was a possibility.

“One of the things that we will look at is, if there is a problem with unit cohesion, how would you mitigate it?” he said before citing “training or regulations or other measures” as possible solutions.

A Military Times survey of subscribers released in December 2008 found that 58 percent of active military personnel oppose repealing the current policy. Additionally, if the policy is overturned, nearly 10 percent said “I would not re-enlist or extend my service” while another 14 percent said “I would consider not re-enlisting or extending my service.” A 2006 Zogby poll found only 26 percent of military personnel who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan supported overturning the current policy.
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press. The list of the retired officers who support the current law can be viewed at www.flagandgeneralofficersforthemilitary.com.

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