WASHINGTON, Feb. 26, 2010 -- One of the military's senior officers did not shy away from telling Congress this week that he thinks the current "don't ask, don't tell", law barring gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military should not be repealed.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway told the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday that he does not think the law should be changed.
"At this point, I think that the current policy works," Conway said. "My best military advice to this committee, to the secretary, to the president would be to keep the law such as it is."
Conway said he looks at the issue strictly from the point of view of whether changing the law would "enhance the war-fighting capabilities of the United States Marine Corps by allowing homosexuals to openly serve."
Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, presented the administration's proposal that Congress repeal "don't ask, don't tell". At the time, Mullen said he supported changing the policy because letting gays serve openly in the military would be "the right thing to do."
Annual hearings this week afforded lawmakers their first opportunity to ask the military service chiefs what they thought about the plan. Though none went as far as Mullen, they all supported Gates' plan to undertake a year-long study of attitudes within the military's ranks before Congress proceeds with repealing the law.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz support undertaking the study because they worry about how their forces might deal with the change while they're engaged in two wars. Schwartz said, "This is not the time to perturb the force that is, at the moment, stretched by demands in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere without careful deliberation."
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead did not provide an opinion at Thursday's hearing, though Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said it was his personal opinion that gays should be allowed to serve openly.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said the service chiefs' testimony this week expressed "fundamental agreement" with the Gates plan to undertake a comprehensive study of what service members think about repealing the law.
Gates Determining Ways to Carry Out 'Don't Ask' in Humane Fashion
He said Conway's comments do not reflect that "he is closed to the notion of learning something through this process." He added, "We don't know what's going to be at the end of this, what this review is going to tell us."
In unveiling his plans for a year-long study, Gates said the review was necessary because the military had never undertaken an analysis of the attitudes about the law within the ranks. He said it would be crucial that the study be completed before Congress moved to repeal the law.
The service chiefs also expressed reservations this week about a proposal from some on Capitol Hill that the military should suspend discharge proceedings against service members who violated "don't ask, don't tell" while Congress works toward potentially repealing the law.
"I would encourage you to either change the law or not," said Conway at another hearing Wednesday, "but half-measures will only be confusing in the end."
Gates selected Army Gen. Carter Ham and Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson to head the panel that will undertake the study of the potential impact on the force if the law is repealed. Their team is still taking shape, but the goal is to have the final results of their study unveiled in December. The 10-month study will consist of surveys of both service members and their families.
Meanwhile, Gates has ordered a 45-day internal effort to determine ways for the Defense Department to carry out the "don't ask, don't tell law" in a more humane fashion, particularly in cases where service members were outed by third parties.
There were 428 discharges of gay service members in 2009, the lowest number of discharges since the implementation of "don't ask, don't tell" in late 1993, and almost 200 less than the previous year.