Participation encouraged in 'don't ask, don't tell' poll

Air Force service members at the Charleston Air Force Base listen Thursday to Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen told Charleston Air Force Base personnel their opinions will count in how to approach the likely repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."

Speaking to several hundred Air Force personnel, the Navy admiral encouraged them to take part in a Pentagon-wide survey in the coming months on how the switch might be implemented. "You will be most affected by this law and policy if and when it changes," he told them.

But most of the questions Mullen faced Thursday weren't about the military's sexual-orientation policy. Instead, speculation about hostilities in global hot spots, such as Turkey, Israel, Iran and the Koreas -- where U.S. forces could be pulled into harm's way -- dominated the discussion.

Mullen's visit came as part of an ongoing tour of U.S. bases that feature open question-and-answer session with all levels in rank. Topics covered personnel shortages to budget cuts and deployment lengths. Wednesday he was at Fort Bragg, N.C., while today he'll be at Fort Benning, Ga.

The future of "don't ask, don't tell" was just a minor part of the CAFB session, especially since much of the policy's future remains in Congress' hands. But Mullen said the military will seek input from its own in the coming months to help in the likelihood the repeal takes place.

The ban, in place since 1993, is part of the military's prohibition on allowing openly gay and lesbian members from serving. More than 13,000 service members have been dismissed since it was enacted.

As part of its review, defense officials recently announced an online survey where members of the armed forces and their families can comment anonymously on the measure's impact. The message center will accept comments on a variety of topics, from military readiness and effectiveness, to recruiting, retention and unit cohesion, Department of Defense officials reported earlier.

Mullen said he hasn't heard a negative from other countries that moved from a ban to allowing gays to openly serve. "It just wasn't an issue in terms of success of the mission and what we do in the military," he said.

While in Charleston, Mullen also presented bronze stars to three airmen for service tied to their duties in Afghanistan. The recipients were:

--Staff Sgt. Christopher M. Ferrell, whose record includes contributing to the destruction of 54,000 pounds of munitions, 128 improvised explosive devices, 108 unexploded ordnance items and in clearing 6,871 miles of hazardous roadways.

--Master Sgt. Sean P. Houlihan, for achievement as deputy chief in public affairs as part of operation Enduring Freedom.

--Maj. William Skinner III, who as part of duties completed more than 20 "outside-the-wire" missions. He also took part in receiving 300 Afghan avalanche victims at Bagram Airfield and oversaw a weapons-screening that assured the safety of more than 27,000 personnel.

During a meeting with reporters after the session, Mullen said he had no particular insight on Charleston's role in any base closure and realignment talks, such as those that shut down the former Charleston Naval Base and Shipyard complex. The issue is a matter for Congress, he said.

Mullen also warned those assembled that Americans must put themselves in the place of foreign civilians wherever they are stationed and that a civilian death can quickly turn a tactical battlefield win into a strategic loss.

"We cannot succeed there (Afghanistan) if we keep killing local civilians," he said. "It's just not going to work no matter how ideal or how true our mission is."

Mullen's appearance was well-received by the group, including Skinner, one of the bronze star recipients.

"This is about what we see," he said of Mullen's fact-finding tour. "This is about what we're doing every day."