As 'don't ask, don't tell' repeal nears, concerns crop up on both sides

Some US troops worry that allowing openly gay troops to serve will put them on the defensive, while supporters are concerned about potential delays in the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’

Lenny Ignelzi/AP/File
United States Marine Lance Cpl. Edgar Gonzalez asks a question during an April training session at Camp Pendleton, Calif. to familiarize Marines with the military's new position on gayand lesbian service members and the repeal of the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy.

Even as the Pentagon stresses that the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” is going well, senior defense officials have lately had to address vocal concerns among both opponents and supporters of the policy.

Questions remain, too, on both sides of the political aisle about the timing of officially ending the ban on openly gay troops serving in the armed forces. Specifically, will the Pentagon finish up the training of troops prompted by the policy changes in time for Defense Secretary Robert Gates to greenlight the repeal before he leaves office next month?

To date, roughly half of US troops have received such training, and it is “going exceptionally well,” Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at a Center for Media and Security breakfast in Washington last week. The Pentagon has said that it expects to be ready to certify the repeal by midsummer. From that point, it will be 60 days before the new law goes into effect, according to the terms of the bill passed by Congress last December.

In the meantime, on Capitol Hill Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers urged President Obama to explicitly say that he would veto the National Defense Authorization Act making its way through Congress if it contains amendments passed by the House. These amendments include prohibitions on chaplains performing same-sex weddings, which “would undermine the end to discrimination in the military,” according to a letter signed by Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts and three other House Democrats.

The amendments “are trying to micromanage chaplains and service members in a way that frankly I think is unprecedented,” said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an advocacy organization.

On the other hand, some US troops have recently worried aloud that allowing openly gay troops to serve would put them on the defensive. While touring Afghanistan this week, Secretary Gates was questioned by a Marine at a small southern base. “Sir, we joined the Marine Corps because the Marine Corps has a set of standards and values that is better than that of the civilian sector,” the Marine said. “And we have gone and changed those values and repealed the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.”

Will there be an option to leave the US military, he wanted to know, “for those Marines that no longer wish to serve due to the fact that their moral values have not changed?”

“No,” Gates said. “You’ll have to complete your ... enlistment, just like everybody else.” He added, “The reality is that you don’t all agree with each other on your politics, you don’t agree with each other on your religion – you don’t agree with each other on a lot of things.” He continued, “But you still serve together. And you work together. And you look out for each other. And that’s all that matters.”

Supporters of the repeal have some questions as well – most immediate, whether Gates will certify that the military is ready to enact the repeal before he leaves office.

If he doesn’t, supporters of the repeal are concerned about delays. “Some of the reports we’re getting this week are that certification may not happen before he leaves,” says Mr. Sarvis. “We’re probably going to be looking at several weeks more if we have a new service secretary and we don’t have certification.”

For now, Sarvis says, investigations into service members who are suspected of being gay continue. His organization is representing two clients with hearings before military boards this month, “which will probably result in their being recommended for separation” from the service, he says.

“These are service members with a combined 30 years-plus of service, and they’re certainly not looking to be discharged under ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ or to be the last service member discharged under ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ ” Sarvis adds.

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