Officials: Half of force trained on gay ban repeal

More than a million U.S. troops — roughly half the armed forces — have been trained on the new law allowing gays to serve openly in the military, and so far there has been none of the turmoil or dire consequences predicted by opponents of what

WASHINGTON (AP) — More than a million U.S. troops — roughly half the armed forces — have been trained on the new law allowing gays to serve openly in the military, and so far there has been none of the turmoil or dire consequences predicted by opponents of what had been expected to be a wrenching change in military culture.

There’s been no widespread resistance, no mad rush for the door by enlisted members opposed to the policy and no drop in recruiting.

"So far this seems to be a non-event," Gen. Peter Chiarelli, vice chief of staff for the Army, told reporters recently. But, he warned, "This is not going to happen without incident — I’d be crazy to say that. Somewhere along the line something is going to occur. But we’re doing everything we can to head that off in training."

In the debate over the change, opponents predicted that repealing the 17-year-old ban on openly gay service members would roil the nation’s armed forces and undermine fighting ability. And, as the law passed Congress late last year and President Barack Obama signed it, Pentagon leaders said they would carefully assess the impact of the change on military readiness before they certified to the president that it could be implemented.

So far, military officials have told Pentagon leaders that they have seen no adverse impact on the force. And while there have been plenty of questions from the troops — including pointed queries to Defense Secretary Robert Gates — defense officials say they have seen nothing yet that would block the eventual implementation of the law.

The military, officials say, has gotten the message, is taking the training, saluting and moving on.

The Pentagon, in fact, has largely refused to provide details or data on the training, nervous that widespread publicity could inflame the issue, put more pressure on the force or taint the process.

"We have seen no insurmountable issues," Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Our training is going very well."

The Navy expects to finish the bulk of its training by the end of June. The Army will largely finish its training of the active duty force by mid-July, and the reserves by August 15. The Marines and Air Force have the bulk of their troops trained. All together about half of the 2.2 million members of the active and reserve military have been trained.

To be sure, there are still plenty of troops who oppose the change, reject homosexuality and have peppered training sessions with tough questions.

On Sunday, a Marine in Afghanistan complained to Gates that troops haven’t been given a chance to decide whether to stay on under the new policy, and he asked if they could leave if they don’t want to serve since it goes against their moral values.

Gates’ answer: No.

Those who oppose repeal of the ban will have to complete their enlistment, Gates said, adding that troops don’t always agree on politics, religion or other matters, but they still serve together.

Done right, Gates said, nothing will change.

Some military officials have expressed surprise by the lack of pushback during the four months of training. Others said they weren’t surprised because the military’s culture is to follow orders.

Still others said this could just be the calm before any storm that comes when the new policy is actually implemented, when troops are living daily with the new order.

And they are prepared for bumps in the road. One vignette that the Navy has included in training deals with the traditional "first kiss" — the time when sailors returning home after a long deployment leave the ship and greet their families.

Many times there is a raffle or lottery, and the winner can be the first one off the ship to embrace his or her loved one. At some point, that could well be a gay couple.

Troops have also raised question about sharing barracks with gay service members, and expressed concerns about the close living quarters on the battlefield.

"I don’t want to minimize that there may be some service members who have a problem with this … I think we should anticipate that there may well be some (resistance) down the road," said Aubrey Sarvis, head of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an advocacy group that offers legal help on the gay issue.

The Pentagon said last year that a survey among troops found that two-thirds of the overall force predicted little impact on the military’s ability to fight if gays were allowed to serve openly.

But among those who did care, most were troops performing combat arms duties. Nearly 60 percent of those in the Marine Corps and in Army combat units said they thought repealing the law would hurt their units’ ability to fight on the battlefield.

Military officials have also acknowledged that there has been some grumbling by chaplains, and they expect some will choose to leave, although no official requests have come in.

Officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the Pentagon is still assessing when it will be ready to completely end the ban.

Obama signed the law in December that will allow gays for the first time in history to serve in America’s military without hiding their sexual orientation — and he urged those kicked out under the old law to re-enlist. That made good on a campaign promise that gay rights supporters said was long overdue but which Gates and some other senior Obama advisers preferred to defer. Gates worried publicly that the change would fray the close bonds of soldiers in combat.

More than 13,500 service members were discharged from service during the Clinton-era policy of don’t ask don’t tell, under which soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines were required to keep their homosexuality a secret or face dismissal.

Only one person has been discharged for being openly gay since the law was signed. The Air Force said last week that an airman declared himself to be gay, asked to leave the service and that it was approved April 29. When reminded the previous law was about to be repealed, he asked them to move quickly on his discharge, the Air Force said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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