The nation's two most prominent veterans groups have come out in opposition to President Obama's plan to end the military's long-standing ban on open homosexuals in the ranks.
The opposition from the American Legion, the largest American veterans group, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, comes as the White House has begun a push in Congress to repeal the law this year.
Pro-gay groups received a significant boost Tuesday when the U.S.'s highest-ranking military officials, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the Joint Chiefs chairman, told the Senate Armed Services Committee they support ending the gay ban, known as "don't ask, don't tell."
Stiff opposition is expected, and spokesmen for the VFW and the Legion told The Washington Times on Wednesday their groups do not want to see military readiness disrupted while the armed forces are fighting two wars. The two groups have more than 4 million members combined.
"We support 'don't ask, don't tell' and the position is, now, since we are still fighting two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, now is not the time to extend ourselves with a new social-engineering project," Legion spokesman Joe March said. "We expect the Pentagon will very carefully examine the implications before changing any policies to maintain that highest state of readiness."
The Legion released the wording of a resolution adopted by its executive committee last fall.
"The American Legion recognizes that the U.S. military is in the highest state of uptempo short of that experienced in World War II, and as a result there is enormous stress upon the troops in the armed forces," it states. "Now is not the time to engage in a social experiment that can disrupt and potentially have serious impact on the conduct of forces engaged in combat. The American Legion will keep an open mind to the findings and information which results from military studies and findings. Now is the time to support the existing policy."
The VFW similarly criticized changing the law as using the military as "a control group for social engineering."
"The VFW is fully aware that societal norms regarding homosexuality have changed since the 1993 passage of [the ban], but what is considered acceptable by civilians must not be blindly imposed on a military institution that the great majority of society chooses not to join," spokesman Joe Davis said.
VFW delegates approved a resolution last summer in support of keeping the ban.
With battle lines drawn, it was unclear whether Congress will vote this year.
Mr. Gates testified he has commissioned a high-level study, led by a four-star Army general and the Pentagon's top lawyer, to examine how to end the ban and lessen any impact on combat readiness. He acknowledged before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday he doesn't know what the impact would be, even as he endorsed ending the ban.
Although he had said the study would be done by year's end, he later added, "I don't know how long it will take."
Congress has the final say since the prohibition was signed into federal law in 1993 by President Clinton, who approved a spinoff policy, "don't ask, don't tell," which requires gay service members to keep their sexuality private or face discharge.
Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, suggested Tuesday he would attempt to repeal the ban in the 2011 defense-authorization bill, meaning voting would come before senators see Mr. Gates' study.
But that's still not soon enough for those who favor lifting the gay ban.
"I do think that a year is too long," Aubrey Sarvis, who heads the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, told PBS. "It has been considered for some time. In fact, the military has been studying this for 50 years."
A House aide involved in the repeal effort said Democrats see no reason there cannot be a vote to repeal as the study is being conducted. At this point, most Democrats seem in favor of ending the ban, while most Republicans think the current policy is working.
"Supporters of 'dont ask, dont tell' accuse those who would change it of trying to impose a social agenda on the military," Mr. Levin said. "But at this point in our history, when gays and lesbians openly work and succeed in every aspect of our national life, it is the 'dont ask, dont tell' policy that reflects a social agenda out of step with the everyday experience of most Americans."
Gays received another boost Wednesday when Colin L. Powell, who supported the ban when he was Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman in 1993, announced he backs Mr. Gates' study approach. But he stopped short of saying the law should be changed.
"I strongly believe that this is a judgment to be made by the current military leadership and the commander in chief," Mr. Powell said. "It is also a judgment Congress must make. For the past two years, I have expressed the view that it was time for the law to be reviewed by Congress. I fully support the new approach presented to the Senate Armed Services Committee this week."
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