- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Tuesday the Pentagon will need roughly a year to study allowing openly gay Americans to serve in the military to ensure the government makes no missteps.

“The overriding imperative is to get this right,” Mr. Gates said before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

He said that soldiers fighting two overseas wars adds to the complexity of the situation.

Mr. Gates also said the U.S. government has “a degree of latitude within the existing laws” to make changes to the so-called “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding gays in the military.

President Obama ordered the Pentagon last week during his State of the Union address to begin efforts to repeal the policy, based on a 1993 law.

Mr. Gates said a preliminary study already has been completed and the final one will include a “wide variety” of sources, including Congress.

“The Department of Defense understands this is a very difficult and, in the minds of some, a ‘controversial’ issue,” he said.

Mr. Gates also vowed the the review committee would address the issue in a “dispassionate” way.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during testimony he personally is deeply troubled by a policy that forces people to “lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.”

He also said the review was “the right thing to do.”

The study could pave the way for the biggest social change to the military since the 1948 executive order for the racial integration of units.

While Mr. Obama’s promise is being hailed as a good start by gay rights activists, the president is finding resistance in several corners. Some high-ranking military officers are reluctant to embrace the change while troops are stretched thin at a time of two wars.

In addition, Sen. John McCain, the committtee’s ranking Republican, said he was “deeply disappointed” about the study and that it was “clearly biased” because it presumes the law should be changed.

Pentagon counsel Jeh Johnson and Gen. Carter Ham, who leads Army forces in Europe, were named co-chairmen of the study.

McCain, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said the current policy is not ideal, but that it has been effective.

For their part, Democrats in Congress are unlikely to press the divisive issue until after this fall’s midterm elections.

This will probably satisfy Mr. Gates, who long has suggested that change shouldn’t come too quickly. In a speech last year at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., he noted that the executive order for racial integration took five years to implement.

“I’m not saying that’s a model for this, but I’m saying that I believe this is something that needs to be done very, very carefully,” he said.

Under the 1993 law, engaging in homosexual conduct — even if no one is told — 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, which said that 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 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.

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 Mr. 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.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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