WASHINGTON - The Pentagon on 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 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 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 one-quarter of Army troops and more than one-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,” he said.
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.
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.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, a leading opponent of repeal who has 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.
“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.
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.