'Don’t ask, don’t tell': Don’t speak? Don’t know
Feb. 8 e-mail from Casey, McHugh offers guidance on repeal processArmy secretary won’t discharge gay soldiers who talk to himPentagon rebukes general for opposing repeal of DADT lawWASHINGTON — A three-star Army general writes a letter to the editor opposing the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” law that restricts openly-gay servicemembers and draws a public rebuke from the highest echelons of the Pentagon.
One day later, the four-star commandant of the Marines gives an interview warning of adverse impacts if the law is repealed, and nobody complains.
Other service chiefs have recently expressed their frank opinions of the law in testimony on Capitol Hill. Yet the secretary of the Army said Wednesday he feared repercussions if he answered reporters’ questions about whether gay and straight soldiers should one day share barracks rooms.
When it comes to the controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, military leaders are getting conflicting signals about just what, exactly, they are permitted to say.
The 17-year-old law is currently under review by Congress and the Pentagon following calls for its repeal by President Barack Obama. And Pentagon officials have said they intend to solicit opinions from across the military about the potential effects of repealing the law on military order and readiness.
But last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admonished Lt. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, commander of the U.S. Army in the Pacific, for writing a letter to Stars and Stripes in which he publicly opposed the “ill-advised” repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law and urged troops and their families who agreed with him to lobby their elected officials. During a Pentagon press conference last Thursday, Gates called Mixon’s action “inappropriate” and Mullen said that for expressing his opinon, Mixon should “vote with his feet” — meaning consider resigning.
The next day, Gen. James Conway, the Marine Corps commandant who had already told a Senate committee that he opposed the repeal of the law, said in an interview with the Military.com Web site that he would not force straight Marines to bunk with openly gay Marines. Conway’s comments passed without complaints from above.
“I would not ask our Marines to live with someone who is homosexual if we can possibly avoid it,” Conway said.
On Wednesday, Army Secretary John McHugh deflected a similar question from reporters.
“I’m not prepared to share a personal opinion on cohabitation or any other aspect of a change in ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” McHugh said. “I wouldn’t want to be placing myself in a position that I felt was problematic for General Mixon. It would be equally problematic for me.”
According several military and Defense Department officials interviewed this week, the rules governing who may say what about the debate over the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law are not clear cut.
“The Army is not interested in going after soldiers who are expressing their opinions,” said Col. Tom Collins, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon. “The soldiers have First Amendment rights. It’s a little bit different when you’re a three-star and you’re encouraging others to take action.”
McHugh said Wednesday that Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey had spoken with Mixon this week and that he would not receive a letter of reprimand or be asked to resign.
“He recognizes it is inappropriate for him to become an advocate and try and shape the opinion of the force rather than to reach out and ascertain the opinion of the force,” McHugh said.
“[Casey] and I believe that he is now prepared to lead in the very distinguished manner in which he has led in the past and that brought him to a very, very high level three-star position,” McHugh added. “So we will consider the matter closed as of today.”
Mullen had said last week that Mixon had violated “very specific direction … on how this was going to be approached” that Army officials had issued to all Army field commanders.
A Mullen spokesman said the chairman was referring to a Feb. 8 e-mail, but a copy of that message obtained by Stars and Stripes reveals no specific instruction banning officers from speaking out against the repeal.The message asked commanders to share information with subordinates and “cooperate fully and candidly” with a study into how to repeal the current law.
“[Mixon’s] actions at a minimum exceeded the spirit of the directive,” McHugh said.
Privately, officials said Mixon’s true offense was violating a commonly held standard of behavior expected of a senior officer.
“Members of the military know where, or should know where, the boundaries are,” said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman.
Some of Mixon’s supporters, including those both for and against repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell law, said the embarrassing knuckle-rap to a respected general represented a double-standard, especially after the four chiefs of staff just weeks earlier had been encouraged to give their personal opinions and “best military advice” to Congress.
“Unless there is evidence that Gen. Mixon violated an order, it seems inappropriate for [Mullen] to single him out in this way, implying that he should resign,” said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness in Michigan, the most vocal advocacy group in favor of maintaining the restrictions on military service by homosexuals.
But a leading research group supporting repeal of the ban said there are real consequences to comments like Mixon’s.
“In some ways, it is even more important that officers not speak out of turn, because of the risk that they will convey to their subordinates their own disapproval of standing policy,” said Nathaniel Frank, a senior fellow at the Palm Center, which advocates for the repeal. “So comments like those of Mixon can actually make this kind of change harder that it has to be.”