By Franco Ordoñez, The Charlotte Observer
COLUMBIA, S.C. — In less than four weeks, openly gay men and women will be able to serve in the U.S. military.
At Fort Jackson, it's Capt. Guy Allsup's job to ensure that recruits in Charlie Company now realize a soldier is a soldier: gay or straight.
On Monday, the 29-year-old Charlotte Country Day graduate walked 231 nervous basic training recruits through scenarios.
Soldiers won't be asked their sexual orientation. After Sept. 20, they won't be kicked out of the armed services simply for acknowledging they are gay. Hand-holding and other forms of public affection on base won't be tolerated. That goes for a guy and girl, or a guy and a guy.
"Does anybody think that this is going to be a drastic change for deployed soldiers?" Allsup called out to the group.
"No, sir," they yelled.
"Someone give me a reason why not," Allsup said.
Pvt. Umberto Werner, 18, of Fayetteville, Ga., stood at attention. He looked straight ahead, clutching his M-16.
"Sexual orientation has nothing to do with our mission, sir," he said.
"I'll buy that," replied Allsup.
Sessions like these are happening at military bases across the Carolinas, the U.S., and in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Pentagon says it has already trained more than 2 million men and women in uniform.
The 18-year-old policy expires after years of emotionally charged debate about whether gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve in the military. Some troops say the repeal could be a distraction on the battlefield; others contend it violates their personal and religious beliefs.
Interviews last week with troops at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, and Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, reflect the mix of emotions about ending "don't ask, don't tell."
About 14,000 gay service members have been discharged since "don't ask, don't tell" was enacted in 1993. But in 23 days, gays and lesbians will no longer have to hide their sexual orientation or pretend they're straight.
They will still lack some benefits. Gay couples will not be eligible to live in family housing or receive health benefits for their partners because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act passed in 1996.
Pvt. Brandon Eleby, 19, of Durham, was raised by his godmother, who is gay. He echoed other recruits, who said the change is less dramatic for their generation, which has grown up with a more high-profile gay community.
"I never saw it as a big deal," said Eleby, who graduated this spring from Hillside High School.
Allsup, a UNC Charlotte graduate, served 14 months in Iraq. While stationed in Sadr City, one of the most dangerous parts of Baghdad, Allsup said a member of his unit came out to him.
"At one point, he said, 'Hey, Guy, I'm homosexual,' " Allsup recalled. "I said, 'Got it.' And we moved on."
Knowing the soldier was gay, Allsup said, made no difference in their relationship.
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