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(CNN) -- Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili has had a change of heart about gays in the military.
Shalikashvili, who was the top military man when President Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" policy became law in 1993, wrote in a recent New York Times editorial that he was convinced by gay service members that "don't tell" can disappear.
"I now believe that if gay men and lesbians served openly in the United States military, they would not undermine the efficacy of the armed forces," he wrote in the January 2 edition of the Times. "Our military has been stretched thin by our deployments in the Middle East, and we must welcome the service of any American who is willing and able to do the job." (Watch to learn more about the retired general's about-face )
The "don't ask" means commanders are prohibited from questioning a service member about sexual orientation while "don't tell" refers to the stipulation that gay and lesbian troops must keep their sexual orientation a secret.
President Clinton's policy brought the highly charged issue of gays in the military to the center of public discussion. At the time, Shalikashvili, supported the policy, believing that openly gay servicemen and women would hurt the military's cohesion.
With President Bush now calling for a larger military, the issue is sure to become fodder again for political and social debate. (Send us your thoughts on this issue)
Shalikashvili wrote that his position change came after meeting with gay troops, including "some with combat experience in Iraq, and an openly gay senior sailor who was serving effectively as a member of a nuclear submarine crew.
"These conversations showed me just how much the military has changed, and that gays and lesbians can be accepted by their peers."
'A political issue, not a military issue'
Former Secretary of Defense William Cohen told CNN that people should not miss the retired general's point, that the war in Iraq should be the top issue with Washington, but the discussion on gays in the military needs to resume in Congress.
"I think we have to ... take into account the full article," he said. "It was almost as if St. Augustine declaring to God, "Dear God, give me chastity, but not just yet.'"
And in the Shalikashvili piece, he said it's time to start "rethinking this policy."
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd said Shalikashvili's change of heart was a big one but that the policy is a "political issue, not a military issue."
The military doesn't consider the issue a big deal and its concern is with the conduct of its personnel, not their sexual preferences, he said. The change in the policy will reflect a change in social values, he added.
"I think society is moving on and probably Shalikashvili is moving on personally," Shepperd said.
The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a gay advocacy group, applauded the editorial.
"That's a courageous thing to do," said Sharon Alexander, deputy director for policy for the group.
Shalikashvili, who served in the Army for 39 years and is the only immigrant to rise to the pinnacle of military leadership, is very knowledgeable and well-respected, Shepperd said.
World war shaped childhood
Shalikashvili was born in Warsaw, Poland, in June 1936, just three years before the Nazis invaded. His father, who was born in the country of Georgia, was an officer in the Polish army until it surrendered to the Germans then joined a unit of Georgians that fought for the Nazis. Eventually his unit fought with the Waffen-SS.
John Shalikashvili and his family lived in Poland through the occupation and destruction of Warsaw. According to a Washington Post article in 1993, the family lived in a cellar after a German bomber blew up their apartment. Near the end of World War II, the family fled to Germany.
In 1952, the family immigrated to Peoria, Illinois. Shalikashvili, a teenager who spoke no English, learned the language by watching John Wayne movies. He was drafted in 1958 into the Army, where he quickly became an officer.
During the Vietnam war, Shalikashvili served as a senior district adviser to South Vietnamese forces in 1968-69. According to the Army, he won a Bronze Star for directing a search team that was attacked from two positions.
He also served in Iraq after the Gulf War, directing relief efforts for Kurds in the northeastern mountainous area of the country.
When Colin Powell stepped down as Joint Chiefs chairman, President Clinton nominated Shalikashvili, who had been one of Powell's deputies. The nomination hit a stumbling block when his father's service with the Nazis came to light, but the general won Senate approval after convincing testimony that he had not known of his father's ties until just before his confirmation hearings.
Despite suffering a massive stroke in 2004, Shalikashvili continues to speak his mind and some say the retired chairman could be the catalyst for change.
"As a former high-ranking military official, people listen to him," Shepperd said. "The lawmakers will listen to him."
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