WASHINGTON — The commandant of the Marine Corps, who previously had openly opposed lifting the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military, on Wednesday softened his position by endorsing a Pentagon study of the issue.
In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Marine Gen. James T. Conway cautioned, however, that the study should focus only on how a change in military policy on gays and lesbians would affect the military's ability "to fight the nation's wars."
"That's what our armed forces are intended to do," Conway said. "That's what they have been built to do under the current construct and I would argue that we've done a pretty good job bringing that to pass. So my concern would be if somehow that central purpose and focus were to become secondary to the discussion."
Conway was joined in endorsing the study by Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of Naval Operations, who said his personal view on the issue "is what is in the best interest of the United States Navy — and that is to go forward with the assessment that has been called for by the Secretary of Defense."
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Conway's and Roughead's testimony showed how quickly the debate has cooled since Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the nation's top military officer, earlier this month told Congress that he favored repealing the 17-year-old policy known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." The policy requires gays and lesbians serving in the military to keep their sexual orientation secret or be discharged.
Under the policy, more than 13,000 men and women have left the military.
Mullen's testimony that he thought ending the policy "was the right thing to do" led to an angry barrage of denunciations from Republicans, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who's facing his first serious re-election challenge this year.
On Wednesday, members asked Conway and Roughead their views, then moved to other topics.
Neither Roughead nor Conway offered a personal view on the issue. Instead, they said their opinion of repeal would be shaped by the study, which Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced earlier this month.
"There are a lot of bits of information and surveys that have taken place, but there has never really been an assessment of the force that serves," Roughead said. "That needs to be done because only with that information can we talk about the force that we have, not someone else's, not another country's. So we need to proceed down that path."
However, both Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey and Air Force chief Gen. Norton Schwartz told the same congressional committee Tuesday that they think it would be wrong to change the policy while the nation is at war. The number of gay service members discharged has declined since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001.
"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," Schwartz said.
Conway's comments were more surprising because previously he'd previously publicly opposed repeal. On Wednesday, he avoided such assertions.
"The Secretary of Defense has devised a way through a working group to examine the data, I think, in a way that's never been done and I support his efforts," he said.
In the meantime, Conway said he opposed any moratorium on enforcing the current ban.
"There's an expression we have: 'Keep it simple,'" he said. "I would encourage you either to change the law or not, but in the process, half measures, I think, will only be confusing in the end."
President Barack Obama touched off the discussion of with a call during his State of the Union address for the repeal of the policy. Since then, repeal has been endorsed by several top military officers, including Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East, and Army Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. Retired Army Gen. Colin Powell, who helped craft the policy, also has endorsed the change.
This week, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, announced that he'd introduce legislation to repeal the policy.
"What matters is not the gender of the other person in your unit or the color or the religion or in this case the sexual orientation. It's whether that person is a good soldier you can depend on," Lieberman said in a statement.
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