So How Long Before Openly Gay Troops Can Serve?

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In the wake of the Senate’s vote to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on Saturday — and President Obama’s plan to sign the bill into law Wednesday morning — just how long is it going to be before gay men and women can serve openly? Some Pentagon officials have suggested it could be a lengthy process, perhaps more than a year, while a new report from an independent think tank says it can — and should — be done in a matter of weeks.

Marine Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, said Monday that the Defense Department will “move out carefully, deliberately and purposefully” to implement the new policy, which suggests speed is not of the essence. But at the same time, ending the ban should not be “overly burdensome,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs emphasized. The Pentagon’s formal 87-page implementation blueprint says that “leaders must be given clear, equitable, and enforceable standards of conduct and the tools required to enforce standards and maintain good order and discipline in a sexual orientation-neutral way.”

But in a soon-to-be published study, the Palm Center of the University of California at Santa Barbara says Pentagon talk of the need for a year before gays can serve openly “is not based on a reasonable assessment of what it takes to educate the troops.” Air Force veteran Aaron Freed says “the Pentagon can quickly train all personnel regardless of status or location” — including in war zones — and that “training is not prerequisite to a policy going into force.” Implementing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” required less than two months in 1993, he notes.

But that’s not likely to be the prevailing view. Some inside the Pentagon take pride in how the military has handled repeal so far, and don’t want to do anything to jeopardize its implementation. Bottom line: the policy won’t change until Pentagon leaders can assert the action won’t harm U.S. military readiness, and they maintain they don’t know how long that will take. There’s talk of up to 18 months for the Army and Marines, less for the Air Force and Navy. But such a lengthy time frame is not likely to win approval from Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who championed repeal.

But it will take months. The services have to draft training and communications plans to educate the force, rig personnel policies to accommodate the change, and figure out how benefits will be adjusted. Once they have everything in line, the Pentagon will declare it is ready to allow gays to serve — and then there will be a final 60-day period before they do.

Counseling will be a key element of dealing with conflict under the new rules. Maintaining good order and discipline will trump personal feelings, as it always has. Gay couples will be treated for the most part as unmarried heterosexuals, suggesting they won’t be eligible for most military benefits. A sailor upset with a gay roommate is likely to be able to move to new quarters. Chaplains — many of whom view homosexuality as a sin — will not be muzzled.

Army leaders told their troops the change simply represented another order to carry out. “We will implement this change in the same disciplined manner that has characterized the Army’s service for the past 235 years,” they said in a weekend message. Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, told his people that “the standards of conduct we expect of all Airmen will not change. Moreover, we will continue to treat each other, as members of the Air Force family, with dignity and respect.”

Despite the controversy surrounding the issue, the basic approach seems to be — hold on to your hat — common sense. Harassment of gays won’t be tolerated. There will be no public displays of affection — but PDA has always been banned. Separate barracks and bathrooms? Didn’t we vainly try “separate but equal” during our struggle to integrate American public schools? Many military personnel, speaking privately, have been preparing for this change to come for years. They don’t see it as a big deal, and many wonder what all the fuss is about.