The military service chiefs offered mixed views on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal during Senate testimony on Thursday as they said they had concerns about ending the law, but could implement a change if ordered.
Two the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — Vice Chair Gen. James Cartwright and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead — testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that Congress should act to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp — not a member of the Joint Chiefs but a witness at the hearing — also endorsed open service.
In comparison to the other service chiefs, Cartwright offered a particularly strong statement encouraging Congress to take action to lift “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“My faith in our leadership, from top to bottom, the fair-minded temperament of the American public, and the reputational benefit derived from being a force identified by honesty and inclusivity, rather than concealment causes me to favor repeal of 10 USC 654 and the associated policy known as ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,'” Cartwright said.
But Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey and Marine Corps Gen. Commandant James Amos spoke out against legislative efforts to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said he wanted full implementation of repeal deferred until 2012.
Amos, who has previously spoken out against repeal, said he had concern over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal because of several reasons, including combat operations abroad.
“Based on what I know about the very tough fight on the ground in Afghanistan, the almost singular focus of our combat forces as they train up and deploy into theater, the necessary tightly woven culture of those combat forces that we are asking so much of at this time, and finally the direct feedback from the survey, my recommendation is that we should not implement repeal at this time,” Amos said.
The hearing marked the second day in a two-day series of hearings on the Pentagon’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” report, which was made public earlier this week. During the previous hearing, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen reiterated his belief that gays should be able to serve openly in the U.S. military.
Repeal advocates had been awaiting statements from the service chiefs on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” following the release of the Pentagon report. In May, the service chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps sent a letter to Congress urging lawmakers not to take action until the study was complete.
While the service chiefs had differing views on whether Congress should act to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” they each expressed concerns to some degree on the implementation of open service.
Roughead expressed unease about how the Pentagon report showed that sailors in irregular warfare specialties, such as the Navy SEALS, expressed greater negativity over the prospects of repeal and a lower propensity to reenlist than other sailors.
“While these effects may not be fully realized, these specialties must be monitored closely to ensure we are positioned and resourced to respond to changes over the long-term,” Roughead said. “We cannot assume these projected retention losses away and we must take into account the past, current and future combat employment of these combat specialties.”
But even the service chiefs who said they opposed repeal expressed confidence in their branch’s ability to implement a change if ordered by Congress.
Casey said if open service in the U.S. military is properly implemented, he doesn’t envision it would prevent the Army from accomplishing its worldwide missions.
“We have a disciplined force and seasoned leaders, who, with appropriate guidance and direction, can oversee the implementation of the repeal with moderate risk to our military effectiveness in the short-term, and moderate risk to our ability to recruit and retain our all-volunteer force over time,” Casey said.
Members of the committee had different interpretations for what the testimony of the service chiefs means for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal in the lame duck session of Congress.
McCain said the differing opinions of the service chiefs demonstrates the need to hold off on legislative action on ending the military’s gay ban.
“I think it’s pretty obvious from the comments made by certainly the chiefs of staff — the service chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps today that there is significantly divided opinion on this issue,” McCain said. “It’s very obvious to me that there is a lot more scrutiny and work involved before passing this legislation.”
McCain said he wants to hear from the senior enlisted personnel who would be training service members on the implementation of open service as well as combatant commanders before Congress takes action.
But Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), the sponsor of repeal legislation in the Senate, noted the chiefs each expressed confidence that they could faithfully execute a new policy if given time to implement a change.
“My conclusion is that really, in the end, all six of you favor repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,'” Lieberman said.
Observing the service chiefs concerns about implementation, Lieberman noted that repeal legislation pending before the Senate requires the president, the defense secretary and the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to certify that the military is ready for open service before repeal is fully implemented.
The senator noted Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he wouldn’t certify open service until he felt the service chiefs were comfortable with moving forward. Asked by Lieberman whether they were assuaged by this statement, each of the service chiefs said they comfortable with Gates’ decision on when open service could be implemented.
Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), a strong proponent of repeal, similarly brought out favorable responses for repeal from the service chiefs when he asked each of them if they were comfortable with the certification process and with their ability to implement repeal.
Each of the chiefs said they had confidence in Gates’ decision and their service’s ability to execute the change in law.
“I believe we can implement the policy and will implement the policy with moderate risk to our short-term effectiveness and long-term health of the force,” Casey said.
Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said he thought the testimony from the service chiefs “actually went better” than what he had expected.
“I think what it really brought out was the point that although the service chiefs and many people may have differing opinions on what they want to happen and varying ways in which they would like to see it go about happening,” Nicholson said. “In the end, they seem to all agree that it’s possible to make it happen and make it happen in a safe and smooth way.”