By Nancy A. Youssef and Curtis Tate, McClatchy Newspapers
WASHINGTON — The order banning gays and lesbians from serving openly in the U.S. military will be lifted in 60 days after President Barack Obama formally certified Friday that the 18-year policy will be repealed.
Obama's decision came after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta certified that repealing the policy won't jeopardize the military's combat readiness and that the armed forces are ready to accept the change, Pentagon officials said.
The policy will be repealed on Sept. 20, 2011, said Clifford Stanley, undersecretary for defense for personnel and readiness.
Earlier this month, all of the military services reported to Panetta that their troops are ready to accept repeal, the Pentagon said — the final step before the defense secretary, the president and the chairman can certify repeal.
Once the 18-year-old ban ends, gay and lesbian troops can openly serve and will enjoy many of the same federal rights as civilians now do.
"The final countdown to repeal begins today. Service members celebrate this historic announcement, and they are ready for this change," said Aubrey Sarvis, an Army veteran and executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which had advocated for the repeal.
While the announcement is not a surprise, it will end months of ambiguity and legal wrangling over the policy known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The courts have intervened, ruling that the policy is unconstitutional, only to have their ruling overturned in appeal. That has created confusion, including brief periods where the military did not enforce the ban, only to be ordered to enforce it days later.
The decision to repeal still sparks debate. Opponents have argued that administration is moving too fast; supporters of the repeal argue the Pentagon is overstating the potential impact on its forces.
Under a law signed last year, President Barack Obama, Panetta and Adm. Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had to certify that the military was ready for repeal, which they are expected to do later today. Sixty days later, “don’t ask, don’t tell” ends, the law states.
In his 2010 State of the Union address, Obama ordered the end of the controversial law, signed by President Bill Clinton. A month later Mullen said repeal was the moral thing to do, all but ensuring that the military would embrace the repeal.
With that, the Pentagon began studying how to end the law, culminating with a department-wide training process covering everything from administrative changes to ensuring that troops would not lash out at those who came out of the closet.
(Youssef reported from Ft. Campbell, Ky)