WASHINGTON -- Sparks flew on Capitol Hill Tuesday as the nation's top military officer called on Congress to end the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that bans homosexuals from serving openly in the U.S. armed forces.
Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Joint Chiefs chairman Admiral Mike Mullen said, "It is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do. No matter how I look at this issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy that forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested Don't Ask Don't Tell may have been alright back when the policy was enacted in the early 1990s, but might not be so anymore.
"I am mindful as well that attitudes toward homosexuality may have changed considerably both in society generally and in the military over the intervening years," Gates said.
Gates pointed out President Obama wants to end the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy, so it's not a question of if but when the military will get rid of it.
"We've received our orders from the commander in chief and we are moving out accordingly," Gates said.
That statement upset Senator John McCain, R-AZ, who said this is a matter for Congress to decide, not the military or President Obama.
"Your statement obviously is one that clearly is biased without the view of Congress being taken into consideration," McCain said to Gates.
McCain then waved a report in the air that he claimed was signed by more than a thousand former high-ranking military officers who oppose letting gays serve openly.
"Numerous military leaders tell me that Don't Ask Don't Tell is working and that we should not change it now. I agree," McCain declared.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said 69 percent of the public disagrees.
"In the latest Gallup poll, the American public overwhelmingly supports allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military," Levin said.
"I do not find the arguments that were used to justify Don't Ask Don't Tell convincing when it took effect in 1993 and they're less so now," he added.
However, McCain insisted with the country fighting two wars, this is no time for radical change.
"This would be a controversial and substantial change to a policy that has been successful for two decades. It would also present yet another challenge to our military at a time of already tremendous stress and change," the Arizona senator said.
The fact the country is involved in two wars has also become an arguing point for homosexuals and their allies.
The Center for American Progess' Winnie Stachelberg told CBN News, "Given the fact that we're fighting two wars, that our military is stretched thin, we cannot afford to lose one person who is willing to fight and die, quite frankly, for our country."
Stachelberg said resistance by active duty and retired military members should be ignored because they're almost always resistant to change.
"At every step of the way when change has been put forward by the military, whether it was integrating the forces in the late 1940s, whether it's women in combat, whether it's women on submarines, all of these changes, the military has said, 'no, we can't do that,'" she said.
But opponents like Tommy Sears at the Center for Military Readiness cite polls indicating many troops plan to leave the military if gays are allowed to serve openly.
"As high as 24 percent of current military would consider not re-enlisting or early retirement," Sears explained.
Appearing on ABC's "Good Morning America," Retired Army Colonel David Bedey said, "Because military communities, for better or worse, have adopted very traditional values and hold traditional values with respect to things like marriage, I think the the coming out of gays would compromise the integrity of the military community and thus undermine unit effectiveness and unit cohesion."
"What should be the ultimate consideration here is what's best for the military," Sears told CBN News.
Defense Secretary Gates said the military will take about a year to study the effects of letting homosexuals serve openly. And Congress plans to hold more hearings on the subject in coming weeks.