Chief Military Correspondent
"I don't want some fag-bag putting up posters of naked men.''
-- Marine Corps lance corporal, interviewed in Somalia,1993
The long-simmering struggle over "Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' boils into a new but perhaps-not-final phase Tuesday with the release of a Defense Department survey of troops and military families about allowing openly gay volunteers to serve in the military. The Pentagon report, which will outline steps to implement repeal of the current gay ban, kicks off a week of congressional hearings, and perhaps a contentious Senate vote on repeal next week.
Not surprisingly, Tuesday's Pentagon report (scheduled for release at 2 p.m. EDT), will reveal that things have changed in the ranks over the past two decades: today, the vast majority of troops (70 percent under age 30) either favor repeal of the law banning open gays from military service, or don't care one way or another.
On Thursday and Friday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen will repeat their plea that members of the Senate (average age: 63.1 years), who blocked a vote on repeal earlier this fall, join the House in voting (234-194) for repeal.
Also testifying Thursday will be Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson and Army Gen. Carter Ham, who led a Defense Department task force that oversaw the survey and recommended ways to implement opening the ranks to gays with a minimum of disruption. Ham, a former enlisted paratrooper, commands Army troops in Europe.
For drama, the week's climax may come Friday, when the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps will be asked by the Senate Armed Services Committee for their personal opinions on repealing the gay ban. Watch for Gen. Jim Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, to forcefully advocate keeping the gay ban in place to avoid potential "disruption'' and erosion of unit cohesion during wartime.
Amos said this fall that repeal would be "a distraction to Marines who are tightly focused at this point on combat operations in Afghanistan.'' But like the other service chiefs who have murmured vague doubts about the gay ban and the associated "Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' (DADT) policy, Amos has left himself an out, suggesting he would go along with the troops if they feel comfortable with repeal.
All the service chiefs and other senior officers have stressed that, whatever their own personal feelings, their service personnel would obey the law.
Amos will be egged on by one of DADT's most staunch Senate defenders, John McCain of Arizona. Over the weekend, McCain blamed President Obama for stirring up trouble by urging repeal of the law while troops are "fighting and, tragically, some of them dying'' in Afghanistan. Speaking on CNN on Sunday, McCain said DADT repeal "was a political promise made by an inexperienced president or candidate for presidency of the United States.'' The current system, McCain insisted, "is working.''
Gates and Mullen have said DADT is wrong and immoral because it forces gays to lie – hiding their sexual orientation -- in order to serve their country.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid intends to bring the issue to a vote during this lame-duck session of Congress, perhaps as early as next week. Repeal activists are buttonholing potential supporters, while opponents of repeal are working to stiffen Senate resistance. Repeal of the law, a provision of the massive defense spending bill, would enable the Defense Department to lift what is left of DADT and begin implementing changes recommended by the task force. Last fall the House approved repeal of the law, so Senate agreement would effectively overturn it.
But while the Senate may fight a last-ditch effort, it seems inevitable that gays and lesbians will be allowed to serve openly in the military ranks. In September, DADT was ruled unconstitutional by a U.S. district court judge, who issued a global injunction halting Pentagon investigation and discharge of gay service members. The injunction was put on temporary hold by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, technically allowing enforcement of DADT to continue.
But Gates, meantime, has chipped away at enforcement of DADT, tightening procedures for investigations and restricting discharge authority to a team of the most senior Pentagon civilian officials. These administrative changes are said to have slowed discharges of gay service members to a trickle. More than 14,000 gay service members have been discharged since 1994, including 428 last year. A Pentagon spokeswoman, Cynthia Smith, said the department does not have numbers for 2010.
Behind the congressional maneuvering, the public stands firmly in favor of repeal. In the most recent poll, released Monday, the Pew Research Center said 58 percent of Americans favor allowing homosexuals to serve openly in the military, with 27 percent opposed. The telephone (cell and landline) survey Nov 4-7 of 1,255 adults found support for repeal highest among Democrats (70 percent) and independents (62 percent), with Republicans divided (40 percent favor, 44 percent oppose).
Opposition to repeal was strongest among white evangelical Protestants (48 percent) and among Republican respondents who identified themselves as Tea Party enthusiasts: 48 percent said they opposed repeal of the gay ban, 38 percent favor repeal.