The Defense Department starts the clock next week on what is expected to be a several-year process in lifting its ban on gays from serving openly in the military.
A special investigation into how the ban can be repealed without hurting the morale or readiness of the troops was expected to be announced Tuesday by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
While the review is likely to take the better part of this year to complete, and even more time to implement, its initiation will advance President Barack Obama's goal of repealing the ban and bring a divisive issue for the military back to the fore.
At the White House, officials continued reviewing options to repeal the Clinton-era policy that the president vowed to repeal. The administration still believes that any repeal should start in Congress and have the backing of top military leaders.
To that end, Obama and Gates planned a meeting next week to discuss, among other topics, ending "don't ask, don't tell" policies. The president was also likely to speak with Mullen, who has signaled he would carry out a repeal if ordered by Obama and Congress.
Lifting the ban poses some emotional questions that go to the heart of the military's command structure and the trust relationships within military units. Among them: Will U.S. troops and leaders tolerate openly gay members in their midst? And if they don't, what should the Pentagon do about it?
The military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy was imposed by a 1993 law intended as a compromise between President Bill Clinton, who wanted to lift the ban on gays entirely, and a reluctant Congress and military that said doing so would threaten order.
Under the policy, the military can't ask recruits their sexual orientation. In turn, service members can't say they are gay or bisexual, engage in homosexual activity or marry a member of the same sex.
Between 1997 and 2008, the Defense Department discharged more than 10,500 service members for violating the policy.
The review to be announced next week was expected to delve into practical issues that surround changing the law: Can a soldier be forced to room with someone who is openly gay if they are the same sex? Would the military recognize civil unions and how much would it cost to extend benefits to a service member's partner? Would quotas be imposed to ensure openly gay service members aren't passed over for promotions?
Obama has promised to repeal the law but did little to press the issue in his first year as president. In his national address on Wednesday, Obama received a standing ovation from some members of Congress and Gates when he suggested that would change.
"This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are," Obama said during his State of the Union address. "It's the right thing to do."
While his promise is being hailed as a good start by gay rights' activists, Obama is finding resistance in several corners. Some high-ranking military officers are reluctant to embrace the change while the forces are stretched thin at a time of two wars.
Democrats in Congress are also unlikely to press the issue until after this fall's midterm elections.
This will probably satisfy Gates, who has long suggested that change shouldn't come too quickly. In a speech last year at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., Gated noted that the 1948 executive order for racial integration took five years to implement.
"I'm not saying that's a model for this, but I'm saying that I believe this is something that needs to be done very, very carefully," he told the audience.
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