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Pentagon cheers end of 'don't ask, don't tell'

Anna MulrineThe Christian Science Monitor

At 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, it became official: The US military will no longer ban openly gay troops from serving in uniform.

The nation’s top military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, heralded the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which he said “was fundamentally against everything we stood for as an institution.”

In a press conference with Pentagon reporters Tuesday afternoon, he added, “We are better than that – we should be better than that.”

Many US troops and chaplains have said they expect little to change with the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell, which has been in effect for nearly two decades.

Pentagon officials for their part stressed that they believe sexual orientation remains “a personal and private matter.” When asked what will happen Tuesday if a gay individual walks into a recruiting station today and wants to join the military, Pentagon spokesman George Little noted that “while applicants are not asked, or required to reveal their sexual orientation, statements about sexual orientation will not be a bar to military service.”

Preparing troops for the repeal

So far, approximately 2.3 million service members have been trained about what behavior is expected of them in a “post-repeal environment,” Mr. Little added.

A memo signed by a top Pentagon official and distributed to US military bases around the world emphasized these expectations.

“Effective today, statements about sexual orientation or lawful acts of homosexual conduct will not be considered as a bar to military service or admission to Service academies, ROTC or any other accession program,” read the memo. “All Service members are to treat one another with dignity and respect regardless of sexual orientation. Harassment or abuse based on sexual orientation is unacceptable and will be dealt with through command or inspector general channels.”

Mullen has long stressed that he believed don't ask, don't tell (DADT) should be repealed. He told lawmakers in February 2010 that the change in policy “comes down to integrity.”

It is “the right thing to do,” Mullen added. “No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.”

The new law, he said, helps create “a force of more character and honor – more in keeping with our own values.”

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta added in a press conference with Pentagon reporters Tuesday afternoon that the repeal represents what America “is all about,” and focuses on the abilities, rather than the sexual preferences, of those who serve. “These are men and women who put their lives on the line in the defense of this country – and that’s what should matter the most,” Secretary Panetta said.

He called Mullen’s support of the repeal one of the “major factors” in the law being passed.

Some federal limitations remain

Despite the change in law that went into effect Tuesday, partners of homosexual service members – whether they are legally married in a state that allows gay marriage or not – will not be entitled to the same military privileges as opposite sex military spouses.

The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman, effectively prohibits gay spouses or legal partners from, for example, using the base commissary or being entitled to medical treatment at base clinics.

“We follow the law here,” Mullen said. “DOMA, that law, restricts some of the issues that you talk about. We’re going to follow that law as long as it exists.”

A “quick reference guide” distributed by the Pentagon stressed that the creation of separate bathroom facilities or living quarters based on sexual orientation “is prohibited, and commanders may not establish practices that physically segregate service members according to sexual orientation.”

The reference guide emphasized that “there will be no new policy to allow for release from service commitments for service members who are opposed to the repeal of DADT, or to serving with gay and lesbian service members.”