Why will it take so long to lift 'don't ask, don't tell'?

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 21, 2010 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama this morning signed the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" prohibition on gays serving openly in the military, but it may be as long as a year before the 17-year-old ban is lifted.

Advocates say the Pentagon must — and can — move more quickly.

A study by the Palm Center, a research institute of the University of California, Santa Barbara, that was released immediately after the Senate passed the repeal Saturday notes that it took the military less than two months in 1993 to enact "don't ask, don't tell," which at that time was considered revolutionary change because it accepted that some members of the military were gay and prohibited investigations to out them.

More recently, the Palm Center report says, the military has turned around new rules on Internet use, preventing sexual assault and suicide-risk awareness programs weeks after policy recommendations were put in place. Those changes reached combat zones, the report notes.

"If leaders set clear deadlines and monitor progress, training can be accomplished quickly," the report says, adding later: "Whatever preparations are ultimately deemed necessary, the Pentagon ought to be able to pull them off faster than it did the implementation of DADT in 1994, which took approximately 40 days."

Even the Pentagon's own study on troops' attitudes toward gays in the military found that other militaries didn't take a lot of time to implement the change. "By and large they undertook what is best described as a minimalist approach," the study group said.

Looking at the experience of Canada and the United Kingdom in allowing gays to serve, the Pentagon study found that "actual implementation of change in those countries went much more smoothly than expected, with little or no disruption."

Pentagon officials say, however, that this change will be more complicated. Training programs must be devised, decisions must be made on how, when and where troops deployed in war zones will be trained and regulations on personal conduct must be rewritten.

One key question, they say, is whether everyone in the military — 1.4 million people in uniform — must undergo training before the Pentagon and the White House can certify that lifting the ban won't hurt combat readiness.

Pentagon officials say that while its survey of attitudes toward gay troops took eight months to complete, the recommendations it contained on how to implement a change weren't final. Instead, Pentagon officials must study them to see which should be enacted.

"Although there is a road map (through the study group recommendations), we have to come up with a concrete plan with a real world application. That's in its infancy," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said.

"Everything has to be determined," he added. "There is no slow rolling, nor will there be rushing" to implement the change.

The considerations are legion, officials say. For example, some troops and civilian employees will need specific training first to implement the new law: lawyers and personnel administrators, who will deal with changes in benefits; recruiters, who must change how they reach out to and interview new soldiers; and chaplains, who may have to provide services even as they say their religion considers homosexuality a sin.

Then the military must determine what kind of training service members should receive, who should develop that training and who should lead it. Should each of the four service branches conduct its own training or should the same training be used for the Defense Department as a whole?

What about soldiers serving in combat? According to the Pentagon's survey, resistance to repealing the ban on gays and lesbians was highest in combat units; 58 percent of Marines and 48 percent of soldiers said they feared negative consequences. Do they need special training, and should that training be while they are in war zones or after they return home?

The military also doesn't know how much training is required to ensure that implementation doesn't affect readiness. Does everyone have to receive some kind of training before the repeal ends, or only those who are charged with implementing it?

Under the legislation that Obama will sign into law, repeal will take effect 60 days after the president, the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that implementation of the new policies and regulations "is consistent with the standards of military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention of the armed forces," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a statement.

In testimony before Congress in February, Gates said implementation could take a year. But officials now refuse to set out a timeline.

If repeal indeed takes months, Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both of whom advocated for the change, may no longer be leading the Defense Department. Gates has vowed to leave his post sometime next year and Mullen's term ends Sept. 30.

"In invoking their certification rights, the president, secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff should keep in mind that the support plan is complete; the Pentagon is presumably at least three weeks into the pre-repeal phase; and leadership, professionalism and respect (the key implementation message as per the support plan) are not new competencies for the U.S. military," the Palm Center report concludes.

ON THE WEBMORE FROM MCCLATCHY

Congress repeals 'don't ask, don't tell' policy on gays in military

New try at 'don't ask don't tell' repeal passes House

Pentagon crafts 'don't ask' repeal to satisfy opponents

Follow national security developments at McClatchy's Nukes & Spooks

Palm Center Study

Pentagon's 'don't ask, don't tell' page

McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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