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Pentagon crafts 'don't ask' repeal to satisfy opponents

By Nancy A. Youssef, McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon Tuesday offered a carefully calibrated plan for lifting the ban on gays serving openly in the military that would allow the military to keep President Barack Obama's vow to end "don't ask, don't tell" while accommodating the substantial minority of troops who said repealing the ban would hurt their ability to fight wars.

In unveiling an eight-month-long study that included the largest survey of military opinion ever, Pentagon officials stressed that 70 percent of the more than 115,000 soldiers, sailors and marines who responded said they thought there'd be no effect or positive effect from lifting the ban, which Congress codified 17 years ago during the administration of President Bill Clinton.

But that overwhelming support evaporated in combat units, according to the 256-page study, where 48 percent of Army troops and 58 percent of Marines thought lifting the ban would have negative consequences. More than a quarter of Army troops and more than a third of Marines said they'd consider leaving the military if the ban were lifted.

"In my view, the concerns of combat troops as expressed in the survey do not present an insurmountable barrier to a successful repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell,'" Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters at a news conference to announce the report's conclusions. "However, these findings lead me to conclude that an abundance of care and preparation is required if we are to avoid a disruptive — and potentially dangerous — impact on the performance of those serving at the tip of the spear in America's wars."

Among the steps the military would take to mitigate possible negative impact from a repeal, should Congress enact one, would be a more gradual implementation in deployed units so that commanders' attention can remain focused on combat, and not on the training and education that the Pentagon says will be needed for successfully incorporating openly gay people into the services.

The Pentagon also is proposing limiting housing benefits to married heterosexual couples only, while other military benefits, such as health insurance, would be made available to same-sex partners of service members.

It was unclear how the report will affect the debate in Congress on repealing "don't ask, don't tell," which has been approved by the House but faces an uncertain future in the lame-duck Senate.

Gates urged Congress to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" during the lame-duck session. He said he fears that recent court case, including an order in California that stopped the enforcement of the ban worldwide for eight days in October before an appeals court stayed it, could lead to abrupt change — "by far the most disruptive and damaging scenario I could imagine," he said.

But he also said the military would need an unspecified amount of time after a congressional repeal to prepare and train the troops for the change, and that there may be a period when soldiers are being trained to accept gays even as the law still states they can't serve.

Democrats who previously supported repeal hailed the report's findings. "Today's report confirms that ending 'don't ask, don't tell' can be implemented in a manner consistent with maintaining the strong, cohesive military force we have today," Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.

His sentiments were echoed in a separate statement by Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

"The Pentagon report makes it unambiguously clear that the risk of repeal on military effectiveness is minimal, that any risks can be addressed by implementing the report's recommendations, and that a clear majority of active duty servicemen and women have no problem with repeal," they said.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, a leading opponent of repeal who's said he's concerned about the impact it would have on troops fighting two wars, offered no opinion Tuesday. He said he and his staff were still studying the report.

The report itself concluded that despite the high percentage of opposition within combat units, other survey findings pointed to the likelihood that gays could serve openly with minimal disruption.

The report said the survey found that 69 percent of respondents said they'd served with someone they thought to be gay or lesbian and that of those, 92 percent said their experience was good or indifferent. Those percentages were also true of combat units. "The percentage distinctions between war-fighting units and the entire military are almost non-existent when asked about the actual experience of serving in a unit with someone believed to be gay," the report found.

"Anecdotally, we also heard a number of service members tell us about a leader, co-worker, or fellow service member they greatly liked, trusted, or admired, who they later learned was gay; and how once that person's sexual orientation was revealed to them, it made little or no difference to the relationship," the report found.

The depth of the opposition to repeal, however, is far greater than previous leaked accounts of the survey had suggested, and while opponents are in a minority, for the most part, the number of those who said they're opposed is still significant.

Just over 23 percent of Marines said they would quit the corps sooner than they'd planned, and another 15 percent said they'd consider leaving sooner if the ban were lifted. In the Army, 14.2 percent said they'd leave, and another 11.8 percent said they'd consider quitting earlier than planned if the ban were lifted. The numbers were smaller in the Navy, 7.9 percent and 8.6 percent, respectively, and in the Air Force, 8.2 percent and 9.9 percent.

Forty-seven percent of Marines and 34.3 percent of the Army said repealing the ban would negatively or very negatively affect how their unit trains together.

About 40 percent of Marines and 29.8 percent of those in the Army said the repeal and the knowledge that a gay or lesbian service member was in their unit would negatively or very negatively affect their morale. The comparable numbers were 24 percent in the Air Force, and 18.6 percent of the Navy.

Nearly 52 percent of Marines, 38.5 of the Army surveyed, 30.9 percent of the Navy and 31.5 percent of the Air Force said the repeal would likely lead to them socializing with their unit less.

Opposition to repeal, the report said, was strongest among military chaplains. "A large number of military chaplains (and their followers) believe that homosexuality is a sin and an abomination, and that they are required by God to condemn it as such," the report said.

But other respondents said they, too, were concerned about how the military's social climate would change if the ban were repealed. They said they worried about men holding hands on base, for example, and overall erosion of the standard of conduct. About 12 percent of spouses said they'd encourage their husbands or wives to leave the service if the ban were lifted.

The report was undertaken in response to Obama's pledge after taking office to overturn "don't ask, don't tell." It included the largest survey ever of service members. Westat Corp. designed the survey questions, and the survey reached out to 400,000 active duty and reserve troops.

In addition, the views of 150,000 spouses were sought, of whom 44,266 responded. Another 72,384 service members or spouses offered their views through an online "suggestion box" and more than 24,000 service members took part in 92 town hall meetings held at 51 bases around the world.

The report itself was co-chaired by Army Gen. Carter Ham, the commander of U.S. forces in Europe, and Jeh Johnson, the department's general counsel.

Since the law was put in place in 1993, about 13,500 service members have been forced to leave the military under "don't ask, don't tell." That number dropped precipitously since 2009. And since October, when the Pentagon allowed only service secretaries and the Pentagon lawyer to determine whether someone violated the law, no one has been asked to leave the military under "don't ask, don't tell."

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