Subtle acts reshape military amid gay ban repeal

In this photo taken Sept. 15, 2011, in Chicago, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach stands along the shore of Lake Michgan. Fehrenbach, an F-15E fighter pilot, announced he was gay on national TV in 2009. AP Photo/M. Spencer Green

SAN DIEGO - Night-long celebrations will mark the final countdown to the historic end of the U.S. military's ban on openly gay troops, and even more partying will take place once it is lifted Tuesday. But in many ways change is already here.

Countless subtle acts over the past months have been reshaping the military's staunchly traditional society in preparation for the U.S. armed forces' biggest policy shift in decades. Supporters of repeal compare it to the racial de-segregation of troops more than 60 years ago.

For some gay service members, the fear of discovery and reprisals dissipated months ago when a federal court halted all investigations and discharge proceedings under "don't ask, don't tell," while military leaders prepared the armed services for its end.

Several have come out to their peers and commanders.

A few have since placed photographs of their same-sex partners on their desks and attended military barbecues and softball games with their significant others. In San Diego, about 200 active-duty personnel — both gay and heterosexual — made up the nation's first military contingency to participate in a Gay Pride march this summer, carrying banners identifying their branches of service. An Army soldier had tears, saying she was touched by the thousands cheering them on, after hiding her identity for so long.

"We're Gay. Get Over it," stated the cover page of the Marine Corps Times distributed to bases worldwide a week ahead of Tuesday's repeal.

The headline offended some but for many troops it echoed their sentiment that repeal is a non-issue for a military that operates by following orders and is busy at war. That sentiment is backed by Pentagon officials who say they have found no evidence the repeal so far has disrupted forces or harmed unit cohesion as predicted by opponents.

Air Force Capt. Diane Cox, whose gay son served in the Navy, said she got into heated debates with service members vowing not to take showers and share rooms with gays before Congress voted to repeal the law, but after the military held sensitivity trainings to explain the new rules "everybody just shut up."

Jokes are still told about gay people but the harsh remarks have stopped, she said.

"It's a new Air Force. I'm really surprised how everything settled down as much as it has," said the emergency room nurse at Travis Air Force base, near Fairfield in northern California. "Some of the best, most honorable people have had the military pin medals of honor on them for combat and then they've gotten kicked out over this. It's shameful. I'm glad it's done."

Many no doubt will continue to keep their personal lives private. But gay service members say their jobs already feel easier. They no longer use code words or change pronouns in their conversations to protect their careers. The Associated Press interviewed more than a dozen people who are currently in the military or left within recent months about the changes taking place.

Air Force Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach, 42, said the differences may be subtle but the impact is profound. Fehrenbach came out on national TV in 2009 after the Air Force started discharge proceedings, which were later stalled by the repeal process. He reported for duty two days later and was congratulated by colleagues.

"I realized this was the first time I wouldn't have to lie. There was a great sense of relief, a great sense of pride that I had never felt before," said Fehrenbach, who retires from service Oct. 1. "They're going to feel that on Tuesday — every service member who has not come out yet. Even if they choose to keep their private life private, they're going to have the feeling that a burden has been lifted."

The United States on Tuesday will join 29 others nations, including Israel, Canada, Germany and Sweden, that allow gay individuals to serve openly in their militaries.

More than 14,000 people were discharged under the 1993 Clinton-era law. President Barack Obama campaigned on the law's repeal, but efforts stalled in Congress until a federal judge in California last year declared it unconstitutional and briefly blocked its enforcement. Lawmakers in December voted to lift the ban and a federal appeals court overturned the ruling, allowing for a lengthy repeal process monitored by Pentagon officials — which they said helped ensure the change did not disrupt the military. Obama certified in July that repeal would not harm the military's ability to fight.

Pentagon officials have spent the past 60 days reviewing policies and benefits to iron out details, including how the repeal will affect housing, military transfers and other health and social benefits.

More than 2 million troops have undergone courses on how to deal with possible scenarios for personnel who may, as examples, witness same-sex partners kissing after a deployed ship comes home or see a gay service member hold hands with someone at the mall.

Some adjustments will take time, Fehrenbach said, like seeing troops with their same-sex partners at military balls — which is expected to happen in coming months.

"It will be great if some do it," he said. "But they should just realize they'll get some looks. And that's OK."

Opponents of the policy change say they worry service members who oppose homosexuality are the ones who will get looks or even get punished by receiving less important assignments or postings, discouraging them from expressing their views.

"I am concerned that some soldiers or military personnel who hold orthodox views about sexuality will no longer feel comfortable attending balls or military functions. Will those persons not be seen as team players or will they be marginalized in some way because they no longer feel comfortable doing the things they were comfortable doing?" said retired Army Col. Ron Crews of Grace Churches International, which has endorsed 20 active-duty chaplains. All chaplains need to be sponsored by a church organization to be in the military.

Crews said the rules are unclear: Chaplains wonder whether they can deny gay service members wanting to sing in the chapel choir or teach in Sunday school as they are allowed to do in their civilian churches. Will they have to invite same-sex partners on retreats as part of the military's strong bonds program that helps couples dealing with the hardship of deployments, or will they face punishment if they refuse?

Crews says if his chaplains counseled same-sex couples on such retreats they would be in violation of their denominational understanding of marriage, and could have their endorsement revoked and be discharged.

"There are many ramifications of this policy change that are yet to be seen," he said. "What we've told our chaplains is that they've got to be very clear with their commanders about what they can and cannot do in this environment."

Gay marriage is one of the thornier issues.

An initial move by the Navy earlier this year to train chaplains about same-sex civil unions in states where they are legal was shelved after more than five dozen lawmakers objected. The Pentagon is reviewing the issue.

Military officials also say the disparity in benefits between gay married couples and heterosexual couples also must be addressed.

Gays and lesbians will share the same barracks and bathroom facilities as other troops. But those legally married will be treated differently from heterosexual married couples when it comes to assigned housing, relocation packages and some other benefits.

Lance Cpl. Anthony Hernandez, who is stationed at Twentynine Palms in the desert northeast of San Diego, said Marines are still divided over the issue, with opponents worried openly gay Marines will dilute the Corps' tough image.

"The way I think of it, if you're willing to put your life on the line for your country, then what's the problem if you're gay" the 20-year-old Marine said.

Hernandez's older brother, Danny, was discharged under "don't ask, don't tell" in 2010.

"I cried about it," Hernandez said. "I didn't know why I was crying. It wasn't because I found out he was gay. It was more about the discharge, about what he would do with his life now. I knew he always wanted to be a Marine like me."

Danny Hernandez plans to apply to re-enlist after celebrating Tuesday.

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