Mullen finds little resistance among soldiers to gay troops

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 16, 2010 

AMMAN, Jordan — Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was nearing the end of a 25-minute question and answer session with troops serving here when he raised a topic of his own: "No one's asked me about 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,'" he said.

As it turned out, none of the two dozen or so men or women who met with Mullen at Marine House in the Jordanian capital Tuesday had any questions on the 17-year-old policy that bars gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military — or Mullen's public advocacy of its repeal.

Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Darryl E. Robinson, who's the operations coordinator for defense attache's office at the U.S. Embassy here, explained why after the session. "The U.S. military was always at the forefront of social change," he said. "We didn't wait for laws to change."

Some Republicans in Congress have expressed outrage at repealing the ban in wartime and the Pentagon has embarked on a year-long study on what impact the repeal might have.

At a Senate hearing earlier this month, Sen. John McCain R-Ariz., urged Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates to "keep the impact it will have on our forces firmly in mind."

Yet those gathered at Marine House made it clear they've already accepted the idea of gays and lesbians serving among them.

Of far more interest to them were other areas, they told Mullen, such as allowing women to serve in infantry units. They also asked about relations between the military and the State Department and, more narrowly, when a key Defense Department official would be assigned to Amman permanently.

Indeed, since Mullen appeared on Capitol Hill earlier this month and told a stunned Congress that in his personal view, gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve, the response among members of the military has been little more than a shrug.

After Tuesday's question-and-answer session, Mullen told McClatchy that although he's held three town hall sessions with troops since his testimony, not a single service member has asked him about the issue.

At Tuesday's session, which included not only Marines, but members of the Army and the Air Force, both male and female service members explained their indifference to the issue: They'd already served with gays and lesbians, they accepted that some kind of change was imminent, and, they said, the nation was too engulfed in two wars for a prolonged debate about it.

That there's been so little reaction raises questions about how much study the issue needs and whether the Pentagon study is meant to pacify its concerns — or Congress'.

Next week, the top commander of each service branch will testify on Capitol Hill about changing the policy and their views are likely to differ from Mullen's. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway has said he objects to it. Gen. George Casey, the Army Chief of Staff, has said he believes the military should not change the policy in the midst of fighting two wars.

No such division was evident among the service members here, however.

Army Staff Sgt. Peppur Alexander, 33, a 14-year veteran now serving at the U.S. Embassy, told Mullen that she's served with gays and lesbians. More than 13,000 troops have left the military since Congress enacted the policy.

"We have lost good soldiers because of that because they wanted to be who they are," Alexander said. "It's sad."

After more troops told him the same, Mullen ended the discussion and explained why he broached the subject.

"You will find as you get older and more senior, finding out what's really going on at the deck plates becomes much more elusive than it used to be when you were sort of living there," he said.

Afterward, Mullen said that any caution he might feel over how to implement repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, if Congress changes the law, comes from when the current policy went into effect in 1993.

Mullen was a captain of a ship and the debate was polarizing, with the troops caught in the middle.

“We put the force in the middle of the circuit breaker and threw the switch,” he told the group around him. “We can’t afford to let that happen.”

The troops, at least on Tuesday, did not appear to find the topic discomfiting.

“Sir, I would say that 70 years ago you and I couldn’t serve in the same Navy, the same Air Force, same Army because of the color of my skin and because of the social conditions of the day," Robinson told Mullen. "It took leadership, it took a lot of time to get people to change their views, and a lot of social change to make it possible for us today. It goes beyond scientific evidence. I think it’s purely a social issue.”

Since "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" went into effect, roughly 13,000 servicemen and women have left the military because of the rule, reaching a peak of 1,273 in 2001.

The number has fallen as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan increased the demand for troops. Last year, 428 gay men and women left the military, according to Defense Department statistics.

About 80 percent of those came forward themselves and acknowledged they were gay. The remaining 20 percent were brought to the attention of commanders by a third party.

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