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Pentagon discusses steps toward ending 'don't ask, don't tell'

From Charley Keyes, CNN Senior National Security Producer
  • The change will happen at the same time in every branch, Gates says
  • Defense and Joint Chiefs officials say the training will be extensive
  • Group representing gay and lesbian troops applauds the Pentagon's progress

Washington (CNN) -- The Pentagon gave fresh signals Friday that it is moving quickly to end its ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military, with the goal of eliminating the policy by year's end if not before.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered that a full plan be on his desk by next Friday, February 4, a "tool kit" for how the department will train and educate the military about the change.

In a memo released Friday, Gates also called the repeal of the policy -- known as "don't ask-don't tell" -- "a milestone event," and said that when the change comes it will be done across the military, at the same time in every branch.

"Strong, engaged and informed leadership will be required at every level to implement the repeal of Section 654 properly, effectively and in a deliberate and careful manner," Gates wrote in his memo.

There has been a drumbeat of administration announcements in recent days on the policy change.

In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Barack Obama said: "Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love."

Gates echoed that on Thursday. "We don't know how long it'll take to train the entire force, but I'm confident we can get it done this year, and we're shooting to get it done sooner rather than later," he said while traveling to Canada.

And on Friday, Clifford Stanley, the under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, and Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, briefed journalists about how the changes would occur.

And even long-time critics of the "don't ask" policy are applauding how the Defense Department is progressing. Alexander Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, the nation's largest organization of gay and lesbian troops and veterans, told CNN Friday: "Generally we are pleased with how swiftly this is moving forward."

Nicholson, a former multi-lingual Army interrogator, was himself discharged under the policy.

At the briefing, Cartwright would not predict how long the training would take. "We do take it seriously," he said. "It won't just be a kind of a 'read this and move on.' It will be a training package for which we will document and they will be accountable for."

Commanders will be provided a variety of materials, including videos, PowerPoint presentations and various vignettes. Individual services will decide how to train their personnel. Cartwright and other Pentagon brass are meeting every two weeks to gauge progress and potential problems.

"The conditions on the ground would dictate how fast we go," Stanley said at the Pentagon briefing. "To even imply that we have a target to do it by this date would be a misnomer. In essence we are going to move responsibly, quickly but deliberately as we go through the process."

One thing that won't change, at least for now, is military benefits.

"There will be no changes at this time to eligibility standards for military benefits," the policy guidelines from the Pentagon state. The Pentagon said the Defense of Marriage Act prohibits extension of many military benefits -- such as medical care, travel, housing allowances and others -- to same-sex couples. But the Pentagon said that could change later.

"The department will continue to study existing benefits to determine those, if any, that should be revised," the guidelines say.

Also, housing and bathrooms will stay the same. "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 policy document says.

Obama signed the "don't ask" repeal into law just before Christmas. But the actual policy change won't take force until most training is completed in the ranks, and until Obama, Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen certify that the military is properly prepared and that readiness, recruitment and retention won't suffer.

Sixty days after that, the new policy would go into effect.

For now, the "don't ask, don't tell" policy remains in place, although no military personnel have been discharged under that policy since October, when Gates changed procedures to have such separations reviewed at the highest levels.

"Don't ask, don't tell is still in effect," Stanley said Friday. "We are obligated to follow that, so to say anything else would be irresponsible."

Stanley, a former Marine Corps major general, was asked how the military would change its culture, even to the extent of erasing slurs and humor. "Leadership, professionalism, discipline, respect are supposed to be there now and should be there even when repeal is affected," he said. "... This is about leadership."