America's military - battle scarred from nearly a decade at war - needs time to integrate openly gay warriors, especially those seeking combat roles with the U.S. Marines, a long-awaited report from the Pentagon concluded.
The report, issued Tuesday, may spur President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats to make good on their much-delayed promise to scrap the 17-year-old ban, known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
While a overwhelming majority of soldiers - 70 per cent of those in uniform - essentially said they "don't care" about the sexual preferences of their brothers and sisters in arms, politicians manoeuvring for advantage on the divisive and emotional issue seem determined to defeat any repeal in Congress.
"The concerns of combat troops as expressed in the survey do not present an insurmountable barrier to successful repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' " Defence Secretary Robert Gates said yesterday. "This can be done and should be done."
Mr. Gates wouldn't be specific about how long a transition would take.
Leading Republicans were already vowing to thwart any effort to repeal the ban.
"I'm doing everything I can to defeat it," said Senator John McCain, the former naval aviator who spent years in Vietnamese prison camps. Mr. McCain, who previously said he wanted to hear what those in uniform said about the issue, has in recent weeks attacked the massive survey, calling it flawed and unreliable.
Mr. Gates, who also served as defence secretary in the cabinet of former president George W. Bush, said Mr. McCain, who ran against Mr. Obama in 2008 and remains widely respected in the military, is wrong on this issue.
"I obviously have a lot of admiration and respect for Senator McCain. But in this respect I think he's mistaken," Mr. Gates said, adding his "greatest fear" was a haphazard change forced by the courts.
In his State of the Union speech last January, Mr. Obama vowed to "repeal the law that denies gay and lesbian Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are," adding it was "the right thing to do." Pressure mounted this fall in the wake of court decisions that deemed the law unconstitutional and, briefly, ordered the Pentagon to cease enforcing it.
Mr. Gates urged rapid repeal, warning that a court-ordered end to the ban could undermine efforts for an orderly transition to a military with openly gay personnel.
"It's only a matter of time before the federal courts are drawn once more into the fray, with the very real possibility that this change would be imposed immediately by judicial fiat - by far the most disruptive and damaging scenario I can imagine, and one of the most hazardous to military morale, readiness and battlefield performance," Mr. Gates warned.
Most Western armed forces, including Canada's, allow openly gay military personnel to serve.
The Pentagon study confirmed that widespread unease remained - especially among the reputedly toughest combat units, notably the U.S. Marines - over the impact of openly gay soldiers.
"Repeatedly we heard members express the view that 'open' homosexuality would lead to widespread and overt displays of effeminacy among men, homosexual promiscuity, harassment and unwelcome advances within units, invasions of personal privacy," the report said.
Unsubstantiated, often negative stereotypes of gay soldiers persist. Earlier this year, a retired senior U.S. Marine general and former NATO commander, General John Sheehan, told Congress that it was the presence of openly gay soldiers in the Dutch army that allowed the genocide at Srebrenica, where thousands of Bosnian Muslims were murdered by Serb soldiers after a Dutch battalion didn't fight to protect the UN-designated safe haven.
The Pentagon report authors dismissed such fears as exaggerated.
"Our military can do this, even during this time of war," they concluded, suggesting it was a far less wrenching transformation than the racial integration of the U.S. military. During the Second World War, African Americans were forced to serve in segregated units, often officered by whites.
The nine-month study, which included responses from more than 100,000 serving military personnel and representations by more than 40 groups, ranging from gay-rights advocates to veterans to religious organizations, is considered the most comprehensive ever prior to a major military policy change being considered.
More than 13,000 American in uniform have been forced out of the military under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy since 1993. There are roughly 1.5-million U.S. active-duty military personnel and a similar number of reservists.