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Pentagon sees lifting 'don't ask' policy by year's end

By Nancy A. Youssef, McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — The U.S. military will begin next month training its forces on how they should carry out the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" and expects the ban on gays serving openly in the military to be lifted entirely by the end of the year, Pentagon officials said Friday.

Each of the services will have completed development of a training program by the end of next week, and most members of the military will have participated in it by the time the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that the military is ready for repeal, as the law requires, the Pentagon said.

"Moving along expeditiously is better than dragging it out," said Marine Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters. "I think all the services believe that is the case."

Gay rights advocates said they're pleased that the Pentagon appears to be moving quickly toward ending the ban, but they voiced concern about limitations the Pentagon foresees on group health and housing benefits for same-sex couples.

"This is an historic day for the Defense Department and a new day for gays in the military," said Aaron Belkin, the director of the Palm Center, an affiliate of the University of California, Santa Barbara, that studies gay issues. "There is more work to be done regarding some important details . . . but this is certainly a moment to step back, take a pause, and salute the armed forces for a job well done."

Under the Pentagon's program, spelled out in a seven-page document that was distributed to reporters Friday, partners or spouses of gay service members won't be eligible for group health benefits and gay couples won't be entitled to base housing available to married heterosexual couples.

The Pentagon also said it wouldn't add sexual orientation to its equal opportunity policy, which currently forbids discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

But all legal proceedings and investigations aimed at discharging gay service members will end once the repeal takes effect, and recruiters will be prohibited from asking potential service members about their sexual orientation.

According to the guidelines, chaplains will not be required to change the way they preach. Chaplains were found to be the most vocal opponents of lifting the ban on gays serving openly during a nine-month Pentagon study of the implications of repeal.

But chaplains still will be expected to serve the needs of all service members, the guidelines said, and no member of the military will be allowed to quit simply because he or she has religious objections to homosexuality, the guidelines said.

As expected, the guidelines also prohibit commanders from establishing sleeping or bathroom facilities that separate gays and lesbians from heterosexual service members and said that commanders "may not establish practices that physically segregate service members according to sexual orientation."

"It remains the policy of the Department of Defense that sexual orientation is a personal and private matter, to treat all members with dignity and respect, and to ensure maintenance of good order and discipline," said Clifford Stanley, the under secretary of defense for personnel readiness.

According to a Government Accountability Office report released earlier this month, enforcing "don't ask, don't tell" cost the military $193 million over the past six years, largely to retrain replacements for gay service members forced from the military.

Under the 18-year-old law, the military has removed roughly 13,500 troops.

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