President Barack Obama and Pentagon leaders today ended the ban on gays serving openly in the military.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Adm. Mike Mullen, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, certified Friday that repealing the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy would not jeopardize the military's ability to fight. Obama, who pledged during his 2008 presidential campaign to dismantle the Bill Clinton-era policy, certified the change to Congress.
That means the repeal will take effect in 60 days on Sept. 20, as laid out in a law passed in December. Before "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the military did not allow gays to serve. But in 1993 Clinton said gays would be discharged only if their sexual orientation became known.
Repeal has drawn strong opposition from some in Congress, and there was initial reluctance from military leaders who worried it could cause a backlash and erode troop cohesion on the battlefield.
But two weeks ago, the chiefs of the military services told Panetta that ending the ban would not affect military readiness.
Advocacy groups that fought for the change called the decision Friday long-overdue, while opponents said it's a political payoff to left-leaning gay and lesbian activists.
"Openly gay service is a non-event and military readiness is improved when service members are not forced to lie in order to serve their country," said Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, a University of California-based think tank.
Elaine Donnelly, who heads the Center for Military Readiness, which has lobbied against repeal, said it will "undermine morale and readiness in the all-volunteer force."
The Pentagon is expected to spend the next 60 days preparing the troops for the change, and ironing out legal and technical details, including how it will affect housing, military transfers and other health and social benefits.
In most cases, the guidelines require that gays and lesbians be treated like any other member of the military.
There will be differences, however. Same sex partners will not get the same housing and other benefits as married couples. Instead, they are more likely to be treated like unmarried couples.
Once the repeal is final, service members can no longer be discharged for openly acknowledging they are gay. That's the key change. And those who have been discharged previously based solely on the gay ban may apply to re-enter the force.
Service members may also designate their same-sex partners as beneficiaries for insurance and other benefits — something they may have avoided earlier for fear it would cause their dismissal.
One of the thornier issues is gay marriage.
An initial move by the Navy earlier this year to train chaplains about same-sex civil unions in states where they are legal was shelved after more than five dozen Congress members objected.
The training, lawmakers told Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, violated the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act by appearing to recognize and support same-sex marriages.
There was early reaction to the policy change today from Southern California military veterans.
"You’re serving your country , you’re not doing anything. You’re not bringing down the morale of the unit,“ said 28-year-old Army veteran William Calhoun, who endorses the president’s decision.
Calhoun is a former paratrooper who’s jumped from planes and helicopters in Iraq and Afghanistan. He figures that a lot of the guys he served with would disagree with him.
"They’re really stubborn, really hard-headed, really set in their ways," he said.
A graying Air Force veteran, David McKay, expressed discomfort with the idea of gays serving openly in the military.
“It’s just difficult having ... that type of atmosphere, when you’re in the military. And it really is a step backwards for the image," he said.
Another Air Force veteran who served on domestic duty during the Vietnam War era who would only give his first name — Gary. He says the new policy should not affect soldiers in combat.
"Once you’re in that combat situation, you’re being fired upon, you don’t think about ‘Hey, that guy next to me is gay or she’s next to me who’s gay.' No, I don’t think that would come up," he said.
Gary, who’s 62, helps other veterans find jobs. He also believes that same-sex spouses of men and women in the military should receive the same support services as any other married dependents.