In another indication that the military services are wrestling with the law and Pentagon regulations on homosexuals, Army Secretary John McHugh said today he has talked with openly gay soldiers without turning them in for investigation or separation.
McHugh, a nine-term Republican congressman from upstate New York who was chosen by President Obama last year to be the civilian head of the Army, was responding to questions at a breakfast with reporters about how the service branch is preparing for a possible repeal of the "Don't ask, don't tell" law.
Under the 1993 legislation, openly gay men and women are prohibited from serving in the military. And until last week, gay and lesbian service members could be investigated and separated from the military, even on the basis of an anonymous tip that led to an investigation.
But Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, acting at the direction of President Obama, has initiated
a broad effort across all the military services to ascertain how they would implement a repeal of the law, and what impact it would have on troop morale and combat readiness. The services are due to report their findings to Gates in December.
As part of this broad review, Gates instituted new rules relaxing the way the Pentagon implements the current law, stipulating, for example, that fact-finding inquiries into a service member's sexual orientation and behavior can no longer be initiated by hearsay evidence. Gates has also required that only flag-rank officers -- generals or admirals -- can authorize the separation of a homosexual from military service.
In a press briefing last week, Gates acknowledged that the law remains on the books "and we are obligated to enforce it.''
In the past, many gay service members have been separated from service, against their will, after admitting that they are homosexual.
McHugh said that as part of his obligation to determine how Army soldiers feel about the law and its potential repeal, he has talked to a number of troops, including some who have identified themselves to him as gay.
"We are just at the beginning stages of taking the temperature of the troops'' on the sensitive issue of gays in the military, McHugh said. In his own interactions with soldiers, he added, "What I am trying to do is show the troops it is okay to talk about it, that senior leaders are serious about discussing it and finding out how they feel.''
In the course of those discussions, McHugh said, a number of soldiers have come to him and identified themselves as gay, and discussed their experiences in having to keep their sexual orientation hidden. He said he had not intentionally sought out gay soldiers. "It's not like I said, 'Bring me all the gay troops,' '' he said.
It was not immediately clear whether a conversation with an acknowledged gay requires that person to be turned in for possible investigation.
His own view, McHugh said, is that as secretary of the Army, "I am not going to initiate in inquiry into the sexual orientation of a soldier who volunteered he or she is gay. That's just my interpretation'' of the law.
As part of the new Pentagon rules on implementing "Don't ask, don't tell," Gates has ordered that certain categories of confidential information can no longer be used against a service member. These include information provided to lawyers, clergy and psychotherapists, medical professionals or information gathered in security clearance investigations. Any information gathered "in the course of seeking professional assistance'' also cannot be used against a service member.
When a reporter observed that the struggle to adhere to the law and to have honest and open conversations with soldiers seemed both highly legalistic and ridiculous, McHugh replied: "I stand on 'legal,' but I gotta go with you on the 'ridiculous.' ''
Suggesting that he is pushing against the legal requirements of 'Don't ask, don't tell,'' McHugh added in jest: "I may get a letter.'' He was referring to several cases in which senior military officers have attracted attention
for violating the spirit and letter of both the law and the new regulations on implementation of it.
On March 25, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly rebuked a senior Army officer, Lt. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, for speaking out against repeal of the current law. In a letter published by the G.I. newspaper Stars & Stripes, Mixon had urged troops to write in opposition to repeal, a step that Mullen said was "inappropriate'' for a senior officer.
McHugh said Wednesday that Mixon had been "counseled'' by the Army chief of staff, Gen. George Casey, and that he himself was scheduled to talk with Mixon on Wednesday. McHugh said he considers the matter now "closed.''
McHugh said the Army is trying to find a way for troops to express their opinions about potential repeal while maintaining their own privacy. He declined to detail what his own conversations with troops have turned up, or to say whether most soldiers say they favor the current law, favor repeal or just don't care either way.
"If there is a common thread'' to the views expressed to him by soldiers, he said, "it is, 'I just want to serve my country.' ''
Gen. Casey, in an interview with Congressional Quarterly published Wednesday, said the majority of soldiers appear to oppose repeal.
"You get a sense that, at least within the Army, a little better than half the force is probably opposed to the repeal right now, given what they know," said Casey, citing opinion polls and personal conversations with small groups.
The general declined to express his own view, CQ said.