SAN FRANCISCO — No U.S. service members have been discharged for being openly gay in the month since the Defense Department adopted new rules surrounding the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, a Pentagon spokeswoman said Monday.
Under new rules adopted Oct. 21, Defense Secretary Robert Gates put authority for signing off on dismissals in the hands of the three service secretaries.
Before then, any commanding officer at a rank equivalent to a one-star general could discharge gay enlisted personnel under the 1993 law that prohibits gays from serving openly in uniform.
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Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith told The Associated Press that no discharges have been approved since Oct. 21.
Smith did not know if the absence of recent discharges was related to the new separation procedures. The Pentagon has not compiled monthly discharge figures for any other months this year, she said.
Based on historical trends, however, it appears the change, as well as moves by Gates and President Barack Obama to get Congress to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," has caused discharge rates to fall dramatically, said Aaron Belkin, executive director of the Palm Center, a pro-repeal think tank based at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
"Statistically, it would be extremely unlikely if we had a month in which there were no gay discharges," Belkin said, noting that 428 gay and lesbian service members were honorably discharged under the ban in 2009. "When you require a service secretary to sign off on a discharge, you are basically saying, 'We don't want any people in this category discharged unless there is an exceptional situation.'"
A month without "don't ask, don't tell" discharges was welcome news, said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. Still, the organization continues to hear daily from military personnel who are under investigation for being gay and face the possibility of being fired.
"We have clients who are still under investigation, who are still having to respond, and in fact we have a client under investigation right now under suicide watch," Sarvis said. "So 'don't ask, don't tell' has not gone away."
Gates announced the change requiring the top civilian officials with the armed forces to personally approve "don't ask, don't tell" discharges after a federal judge in California ordered the military to immediately stop enforcing its ban on openly gay troops, declaring the 17-year-old policy unconstitutional.
An appeals court subsequently froze the judge's order until it could consider the broader constitutional issues in the case.
Putting responsibility for firing gay personnel in the hands of the three service secretaries was not designed to slow the rate of discharges, Gates said at the time. Rather, concentrating that authority was meant to ensure uniformity and care in enforcement at a time of legal uncertainty, he said in a memo outlining the new rules.
Gates since has urged the Senate to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" before a new Congress takes office in January. He said this week he plans to release a monthslong study on how lifting the gay service ban would affect the armed forces and could be carried out on Nov. 30.
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