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WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives on Wednesday held its first hearing in 15 years on the military’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy, with supporters and opponents squaring off on its importance to unit cohesion and morale.

The policy, put in place in 1993, prohibits openly gay individuals from serving in the military. Critics said it discriminates against citizens who wish to serve their country, and deprives the military of valuable recruits.

"[It] discourages thousands of talented and patriotic citizens from joining the military because, rightly so, they refuse to live a lie," said retired Navy Capt. Joan Darrah, former chief of staff at Naval Intelligence Command.

"When a smart, energetic young person who happens to be gay asks me about joining the service, I strongly recommend that they do not join. I love the Navy, and it is painful to me to encourage someone who could contribute so much to take their talents elsewhere."

But supporters said repealing the policy would force out many more heterosexual servicemembers whose personal or religious beliefs conflict with accepting homosexuality.

"Those people become unacceptable to the military then," said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, a public policy organization focusing on military and social issues. "We would lose thousands of people if they were told that, under a zero-tolerance policy, they must accept force cohabitation with other men and women who are homosexuals."

Since 1994, the military has discharged 12,342 troops under the policy, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.

The House has had legislation to repeal the policy pending for more than a year, but had not acted on the issue until Wednesday.

Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., chairwoman of the House armed services military personnel subcommittee, said the goal of the hearing was to "start a conversation" on the policy, to determine whether repealing it would benefit the services.

She and other Democrats on the subcommittee expressed their desire to get rid of it, with several bristling at arguments from Donnelly and other supporters of "don’t ask."

Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., who served in Bosnia and Iraq, called Donnelly’s assertion that many heterosexual troops would be unnerved by homosexuals in the ranks "an insult to me and many of my soldiers." Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., called the idea that gay and lesbian troops would be more inclined to harass their peers "an embarrassment."

But retired Sgt. Maj. Brian Jones, who served as an Army Ranger, said the close quarters and unusual living conditions of servicemembers require different rules than the civilian world, and that sexual uneasiness could jeopardize troops lives.

"In the close quarters that a team lives, any attraction to same-sex teammates — real or perceived — would be known and would be a problem," he said. "The presence of openly gay men in these situations would elevate tensions."

Retired Staff Sgt. Eric Alva, the first Marine injured in combat operations in Iraq, disagreed. He said most of the troops in his unit knew his sexual orientation, even though he could not be fully open about it because of the military policy.

"I was still trusted," he said. "My being gay didn’t damage unit cohesion. They still put their lives in my hands, and when I was injured they risked those lives to save mine."

Republicans on the subcommittee called for more hearings and more research on the issue before any policy changes are passed by the House.

What the candidates say

Both campaigns provided their positions on the "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy to Stripes earlier this year:

John McCain: I routinely talk to our active duty and retired military and they all say that the present policy is working; Accordingly, I support the current policy.

Barack Obama: I agree with former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili and other military experts that we need to repeal the "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy. I will work with military leaders to repeal the current policy and ensure it helps accomplish our national defense goals.

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