Gays figure in talk to soldiers

Chiefs' leader's focus is change

Staff WriterJune 3, 2010 

— Openly gay recruits will likely be admitted into the military, and the services will adjust to their presence, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a group of soldiers at Fort Bragg on Wednesday.

"The law has not changed," Mullen said, referring to a vote Friday in the U.S. House of Representatives to approve a plan that would eventually repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. But President Barack Obama has made clear his support for changing the policy; Democratic members of Congress seem to be willing; and Mullen himself has said the policy is indefensible.

"I'm hard-pressed to support a policy and a law that forces people to come and lie every day," Mullen said.

Mullen was at Fort Bragg to visit with members of the XVIII Airborne Corps, the Army Special Operations Command, and wounded soldiers and their families. A major theme in his discussions with each group, he said, was change: how the military has been transformed since 9/11 and how he thinks it will change in years to come.

At the end of the day, he addressed a group of about 200 soldiers and fielded some of their questions. There, too, he focused on evolution, including what he suggested was the inevitability of accepting openly gay members into the military.

One soldier stood and asked Mullen whether politicians and policymakers in Washington understood the problems that gays in the military would present. Specifically, he said, unit commanders will have to watch out for sexual assaults, hate crimes, fraternization and morale issues.

Those are disciplinary problems that are not tolerated now, Mullen said.

"We are a disciplined force. We have standards," Mullen said, although he noted that his visits with soldiers in the field have proved to him that sexual assault and harassment are far too prevalent.

Keeping those standards, he said, "is our charge, no matter what happens" regarding the policy on gays.

Key to making the change, which is not likely to happen until at least 2011, is developing a plan, Mullen said, and the military needs ideas from all levels.

Other changes Mullen foresees might be more welcome among troops at Fort Bragg, including a lengthening of the time between overseas deployments. In the next two years, he said, as the U.S. draws down its forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, a soldier's yearlong deployment should be followed by two years at home.

Soldiers at Fort Bragg now expect to spend equal amounts of time at home and on deployment.

One exception, Mullen said, are Special Forces troops, for whom demand will remain high in U.S. missions around the world.

Sgt. Taskila Taylor asked Mullen about another change at Fort Bragg: the addition of thousands of troops from the U.S. Forces Command near Atlanta, as part of the base realignment process.

Fort Bragg and the surrounding area are already overcrowded, Taylor said, with too much traffic, too little affordable housing and not enough child care. Getting a medical appointment for a child, such as her 3-year-old daughter with asthma, is getting harder, she said.

Mullen said he would look into the matter and see if everything is being done right to make the influx as smooth as it can be.

Mullen said he had been told of other medical-care issues during his visit. He said that in talking with those in the Warriors Transition Battalion, where wounded soldiers are assigned as they determine whether they will return to regular duty or leave the military, he was told that more medical workers are needed.

There are about 9,000 wounded warriors throughout the military, Mullen said. They and their families have complained that commanders in the transition battalions often are not trained in how to work with the victims of traumatic injuries.

Later, Mullen said that budget issues play a role in how well the military is able to take care of its wounded, and of the family members who take care of them.

When cuts have to be made, he said, "Family programs are the first programs to go."

martha.quillin@newsob server.com or 919-829-8989

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