WASHINGTON — Gays and lesbians will be treated just like any other soldiers, sailors, airmen or marines, the new rules say. But commanders will have some flexibility when they believe it's needed to maintain order and discipline in their units.
As the U.S. military begins to map out how it will implement the new edict allowing gays to serve openly, the first order of business is drafting the regulations. The rule changes under discussion won't dictate how troops feel about the change, but will strictly enforce how they act on it.
The Senate voted Saturday to repeal the ban on openly gay service, following earlier action by the House. Fulfilling a 2008 campaign promise, President Barack Obama plans to sign the bill into law on Wednesday at an Interior Department ceremony. But in letters to the troops over the weekend, the four military service chiefs warned that the ban is still in place, and will be for some time to come.
"The implementation and certification process will not happen immediately; it will take time," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said in an e-mail to airmen. "Meanwhile, the current law remains in effect. All Air Force members should conduct themselves accordingly."
Recommendations to implement the repeal were outlined in a 67-page report last month, and now must be formed into concrete regulations. Defense officials said Monday that they still don't know how long it will take before the Pentagon completes its implementation plan and certifies the change will not damage combat readiness. Once certified, the implementation would begin 60 days later.
The report, however, provides a fairly detailed preview of what troops and the American public can expect, once the new rules are in place.
And it puts the heaviest burden on commanders who will have to walk a fine line between enforcing the updated code of military conduct and recognizing when they may need to make some concessions.
The plans call for strict and immediate action when the new rules are violated. But there is also an emphasis on educating troops who are having problems. For example, in a series of vignettes listed in the report, the first course of action is often counseling.
What if a recruiter refuses to process recruits who say they are gay? What about a sailor who requests a new sleeping area to get away from a gay roommate? Can a service member file a complaint against a chaplain who preaches against homosexuality? And can a gay or lesbian service member get leave to travel home when their partner is ill?
In each case the recommended process is careful and deliberate. The recruiter and the sailor should be counseled about the new rules — but in both cases commanders have the authority to approve a move if they believe it's necessary in order to maintain unit stability. And, yes, chaplains can still preach what they believe.
The health and social benefits, however, are a murky area that Pentagon officials say they are trying to work through.
In some cases, service members may be able to designate a same-sex partner for benefits. In most cases, however, they are treated much like unmarried heterosexual couples. So, same-sex partners will probably not be able to share on-base housing, and commanders don't have to make allowances for same-sex couples when making duty assignments around the globe.
On Monday, Pentagon spokesman Marine Col. Dave Lapan was peppered with questions about the progress of the implementation plan and what it will say. He said he had no answers yet, as Pentagon officials are just beginning to pull the plan together.
But he also stressed that the ban on open service is still in effect, and any service member who decided to declare he or she was gay would risk enforcement of the current law — which calls for removal from service. Under a new process put in place by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, any discharges under the so-called don't ask, don't tell law now have to be approved by the service secretaries.
Gates has said the military will not drag out the implementation process, but it will move carefully and deliberately.
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