Adm. Michael G. Mullen said that the military still needs to conduct a review… (Michael Reynolds / EPA )
Reporting from Washington — The nation's top uniformed officer said Tuesday that he supports allowing gays to serve openly in the military, providing a powerful voice of support for President Obama's call to lift the legal ban on their service.
Launching a formal process to change the long-standing policy, the Pentagon also announced a review that will examine the effects of a policy change along with alterations in military benefits, rules and facilities that might be needed to allow gays to serve openly in the armed forces.
The review could take up to a year and will fuel concerns among advocates for gay service members that any change will be slow in coming about.
Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the military still needs to conduct a review to determine how to prepare for a dramatic policy change. Nonetheless, he said, his personal views were firm.
"Speaking for myself and myself only, it is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do," Mullen said.
Mullen's views are particularly important in the debate. One of his predecessors as Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. Colin L. Powell, played a major role in the 1990s in derailing then- President Clinton's failed bid to allow gays to serve openly in the military.
In 1993, Powell called the "don't ask, don't tell" policy a "healthy compromise." But in December 2008, said the ban on gays serving openly should be reviewed.
At Tuesday's Senate hearing, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced that a high-level working group of military and Pentagon officials would develop a plan on how to best implement a change in policy.
Gates did not take any immediate action to change how the current law is enforced, although he said he intended to make some changes in the next 45 days.
"The question before us is not whether the military prepares to make this change, but how we best prepare for it. We have received our orders from the commander-in-chief and we are moving out accordingly," Gates said. "However, we also can only take this process so far as the ultimate decision rests with you, the Congress."
Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, supports ending the ban. But Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the panel's ranking Republican, endorsed "don't ask, don't tell" as "imperfect, but effective."
"Numerous military leaders tell me that 'don't ask, don't tell' is working and we shouldn't change it now," McCain said.
Mullen is the first sitting Joint Chiefs chairman ever to endorse repeal of the ban. Mullen's predecessor, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, publicly opposed lifting the ban and called homosexuality immoral.
But attitudes within the military have been shifting, particularly among younger service members but also with more senior officers. In 2007, retired Army Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, a onetime Joint Chiefs chairman, announced he would support allowing gays to serve, although he was long retired when he adopted that position.
Gates said the review will be conducted without "preconceived views, but a recognition that this will represent a fundamental change in personnel policy." Gates said the team would work to ensure the change could be made with minimal disruption to the military's work.
The "don't ask, don't tell" policy was enacted into law in 1993 and allowed gays to serve in the military, but only if they do not reveal their sexual orientation and only if no one learns of it and makes a complaint. Hundreds of service members are discharged each year for violating the policy.
Mullen said the Joint Chiefs understood Obama's desire to overturn the ban and were developing advice for the White House on how such a policy change could be implemented. Mullen said he had made up his own mind that the law needs to change.
"No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens," he said.
Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon general counsel, and Gen. Carter Ham, the commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, will lead the Defense Department review on how to implement a change in the policy.
One question the review will address is how to handle concerns about lifting the ban while the military is in the midst of fighting two wars, Mullen said.
"The chiefs and I also recognize the stress our troops and families are under, and I have said many times before -- should the law change -- we need to move forward in a manner that does not add to that stress," Mullen said.