An Army general who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the US military has called for a change in attitude towards gay and lesbian soldiers.

John Shalikashvili was chairman from 1993 – 1997, and it was during his tenure that the controversial policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was introduced.

At the time he argued that had argued that openly gay and lesbian personnel would hurt troop morale and undermine the cohesion of combat units.

Writing in The New York Times yesterday, Gen Shalikashvili said he had changed his mind about gays in the military after speaking to gay and lesbian troops.

The general, who retired in 1997, has called for the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the policy which prohibits gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military, but allows those who remain in the closet to do so.

Conversations with gay service members, “showed me just how much the military has changed, and that gays and lesbians can be accepted by their peers,” he wrote.

Shalikashvili urged Congress to “welcome the service of any American who is willing and able to do the job.”

He also pointed out that many of America’s allies, including the UK and Israel, had openly gay and lesbian personnel with no problems with morale or cohesion.

The current policy dates from 1993, when a compromise was reached between President Clinton’s desire to allow gays in the military and Congressional resistance to any such policy.

Today, the US military is in the middle of a recruitment crisis, with troops fighting two foreign wars and President Bush set to send yet more soldiers to Iraq.

Gen Shalikashvili wrote that he is confident that the US military that is ready for gays and lesbians to serve openly.

Opinion polls in 2005 and 2006 found that a large majority of American (79% and 60% respectively) have no problem with openly gay people serving.

A poll published last month showed that 73% of people currently serving in the US Armed Forces are comfortable with lesbians and gays.

Nearly one in four (23%) service members report knowing for sure that someone in their unit is lesbian or gay, including 21% of those in combat units.

“2006 was a remarkable year of progress in the campaign to lift the ban,” said C. Dixon Osburn, the executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defence Network, a support group that provides legal advice and campaigns for a change in military policy.

“The events of 2006 have moved us closer than ever to repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ The stage is also set for an historic year ahead, with 2007 promising to be a watershed year in the fight for equal opportunity in our armed forces.”

The US has discharged over 10,000 military personnel for being gay or lesbian since 1993.