Supporters of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal are calling for imminent action to implement open service in the U.S. military before Defense Secretary Robert Gates leaves his position at the end of this month.
Advocates of open service say delaying certification for repeal after Gates retires on June 30 could unnecessarily add to the time before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is off the books.
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said certification is essential this month before Gates leaves his duties at the Pentagon.
“I think that we need to get certification this month before Secretary Gates leaves,” Sarvis said. “My fear is we’re seeing an overabundance of caution here. If it doesn’t happen this month on Secretary Gates’ watch, I think we could easily be looking at another month or two before certification.”
Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said the passing the opportunity for implementing repeal would be a “very unwise” move for Gates and predicted that certification would happen this month.
“I find it hard to believe that it’s not going to be [Gates],” Nicholson said. “I believe it’s going to happen this month. Everybody all along has always said — with maybe 90 percent certainty that if you had to make a prediction, it would come in mid to late June. If it doesn’t you’re certainly going to see us get very worried and get very vocal.”
Under the repeal law that President Obama signed in December, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” won’t be off the books until 60 days pass after the president, the defense secretary and the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify the military is ready for open service. Gates has said he won’t issue certification until the armed forces have been trained in handling open service and the military service chiefs say they’re comfortable moving forward.
Waiting for certification after Gates retires, advocates said, could further delay “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal because Leon Panetta, the incoming defense secretary who currently serves as CIA director, may want to examine the issue further before signaling the military is ready for open service.
Sarvis said a scenario in which Panetta would assume his position as defense secretary and within matter of weeks say the armed forces are ready for certification is “highly unlikely.”
“I think that he would want to spend some time with the chiefs and with the troops to make a thorough analysis of the situation,” Sarvis said. “I don’t think that’s something you can do in a matter of days.”
Nicholson echoed concerns that Panetta may want to hold off on certifying repeal to get his bearings straight in Pentagon upon taking office as defense secretary.
“I could imagine a scenario in which Panetta wouldn’t do it immediately — not because he sees it as as problem and wants to delay it — but because he’s just sort of taking the lay of the land in and getting updates and briefings and trying to wrap his mind around everything, not just [‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’],” Nicholson said.
Spokespersons for the White House and the Joint Staff gave assurances the process toward certification is moving ahead, but didn’t commit to pledging it would happen this month.
Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said President Obama is working with Gates and Chair of Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen as they prepare and gave reassurances the president would make it happen this year.
“He’s been in close contact with the Pentagon to ensure that certification occurs as soon as possible, consistent with the standards set forth in the bill,” Inouye said. “Certification and implementation will happen whomever serves as secretary of defense. As you heard him say in the State of the Union, it’s going to happen this year.”
Capt. John Kirby, a Mullen spokesperson, said his boss will consult the military service chiefs before moving forward with repeal.
“He plans on certifying only when the chiefs have assured them they are ready,” Kirby said.
Eileen Lainez, a Pentagon spokesperson, noted that defense officials previously testified before Congress that the Pentagon is “looking at mid-summer for certification,” but didn’t have further information on an expected time.
But Sarvis underscored the urgency of repealing of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” by saying service members are still facing discharge under the law — even though new rules have been implemented making expulsion under the law difficult.
In October, the the Defense Department raised the authority for executing discharges to the civilian secretaries of the military branches “in coordination” with the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness and the Pentagon’s general counsel.
But Sarvis said SLDN has several clients under investigation under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and knows of two service members this month who are going before administrative board hearings which in likelihood will result in recommendation for discharge. Others service members may also be in danger of separation, Sarvis said, because not all troops facing expulsion under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” come to SLDN.
Last week, Metro Weekly broke news that a member of the Air Force was discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” although the airman was apparently seeking expulsion from the military because he wrote a letter to the Air Force secretary asking for separation.
“We’re talking about the reality that ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is still the law and service members are still being investigated,” Sarvis said. “I think it’s fine for the services to be measured in planning for certification but it also has to be in the context of service members are being investigated and discharged under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.'”
Despite calls for certification, training for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal in the armed forces is still underway for some services. The briefings for service members on open service have been taking place since February after the leaders of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps issued guidance on the preparation for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
But even with the training underway, Sarvis said defense leaders have no reasons to put off certification because all the services — with the exception of the Army — have made sufficient progress in their training goals to implement “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal. Notably, the Marine Corps was set to complete the training for the entire service by June 1.
The Army is made up of nearly 548,000 service members and the largest service in the armed forces, so training for this service is expected to take longer than either the Navy, Air Force or Marine Corps. Training for the active component of the Army isn’t set for completion until July 15 and for the reserve component isn’t set for Aug. 15.
However, Sarvis said the Army has made sufficient progress in training to allow for the implementation of open service in the service because more than half of the service has already been trained in implementing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
“It’s very hard to make the case for additional month or two before certification takes place,” Sarvis said. “We’re in ‘Month Six.’ Most of the troops have received their training. This culture change has been discussed in varying stages of planning for over a year now, so it’s time to get on with it.”
Nicholson also said training in the armed forces will “be overwhelming done” by the end of June, which he said should enable the president and defense leaders to give the OK for open service.
“Given that the overwhelming majority of people are going to be trained by the point, I just can’t see any rationale for extending it out,” Nicholson said.
Although repeal advocates fear waiting certification after this month could cause unnecessary delays, supporters of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” predict Panetta would be amenable to the change even though he may take more time to sign off on open service.
The Washington Blade was unable to find recent public statements Panetta made on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” or gays in the military.
However, Sarvis said he thinks Panetta would support open service based on what he’s heard from people who’ve worked with him at the CIA, in Congress or the private sector.
“What we’ve seen and what we’ve heard is that new secretary will be welcoming of gay and lesbian service members,” Sarvis said. “There will be effective and smooth implementation on his watch.”
It’s also possible that Chair of Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen could step down from his position before he issues certification for repeal. However, Mullen isn’t set to leave his role until his term expires on Sept. 30, so certification would be delayed significantly beyond expectations if it hasn’t happened by that time.