WASHINGTON — The U.S. military could allow gays and lesbians to begin openly serving in the military immediately with minimal risk to military readiness even as it fights two wars, an eight-month Pentagon study released Tuesday concludes.
But the change should be implemented cautiously because resistance remains higher in combat units — a finding likely to fuel opposition to repealing "don't ask, don't tell" in Congress, where opponents recently have said they're most concerned about the impact repeal would have on military effectiveness.
A massive study of military opinion found that while 70 percent of troops said they thought serving with an openly gay person would have a positive or neutral impact, the opinion was startlingly different in combat units, where 48 percent of Army troops and 58 percent of Marines said the change would negatively affect their ability to fight.
"In my view, the concerns of combat troops as expressed in the survey do not present an insurmountable barrier to a successful repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell,' '' Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Tuesday. "However, these findings lead me to conclude that an abundance of care and preparation is required if we are to avoid a disruptive — and potentially dangerous — impact on the performance of those serving at the tip of the spear in America's wars."
The report itself, while acknowledging those percentages, said that other data in the survey indicated that combat units were more accepting of gays based on their actual experience.
"Anecdotally, we also heard a number of service members tell us about a leader, co-worker, or fellow service member they greatly liked, trusted, or admired, who they later learned was gay; and how once that person's sexual orientation was revealed to them, it made little or no difference to the relationship," the report found.
The Defense Department offered some specific recommendations if Congress does repeal "don't ask, don't tell:"
• Issues of sexual conduct and fraternization can be dealt with using existing rules and regulations.
• No separate bathing or living facilities should be provided for gays.
• Expand some spousal benefits. For example, gay troops should be able to direct that their partner receive benefits related to life insurance, saving plans and hospital visitation rights, the report found.
• Gay troops kicked out of service under "don't ask, don't tell" should be allowed to reapply under the same criteria as others seeking re-entry into the armed forces.
• No special protections for sexual orientation needed. The report does not recommend that sexual orientation be placed alongside race, color, religion, sex and national origin as a class eligible for various diversity programs and for resolving complaints.
• No special arrangement made for those with religious or moral objections to serving alongside gays. The report notes that people of differing moral values and religious convictions already serve together.
The report's conclusions were quickly hailed by senators who support the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," the policy that Congress created during the Clinton administration that requires gays and lesbians to hide their sexual orientation.
"Today's report confirms that ending 'don't ask, don't tell' can be implemented in a manner consistent with maintaining the strong, cohesive military force we have today," Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.
Senate Democrats plan to force a vote this month on the repeal, which has already passed the House. Republicans, led by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, have mostly opposed overturning the law, claiming that Obama's call for an end to the ban is politically driven and could harm military readiness while the country is at war. The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold hearings Thursday and Friday when the Pentagon's top leaders are scheduled to testify.
More than 400,000 active-duty and reserve troops were asked for their opinions on allowing gays to serve openly in the military, of whom 115,052 responded. In addition, the views of 150,000 spouses were sought, of whom 44,266 responded. Another 72,384 service members or spouses offered their views through an online "suggestion box," and more than 24,000 service members took part in 92 town hall meetings held at 51 bases around the world.
The survey found that across the services, between 50 percent and 55 percent of respondents said that repealing the ban on openly gay service members would have no effect on the military. It also found that only 12 percent of spouses said they would encourage their spouses to leave the service if "don't ask, don't tell" is repealed.
But fully a fifth of respondents in the Army and a higher percentage among Marines said knowledge that a unit member was gay would hurt training and their ability to work together.
Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.