As President Obama prepares to sign into law a repeal of the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, soldiers at military bases around the country are expressing both nonchalance and worry that serving with openly gay troops will be a distraction.
The Senate approved a measure to end the 17-year-old ban on gays in the military on Saturday, and Obama could sign it into law as early as Wednesday. The repeal won't take effect immediately, but the policy could be over in a matter of weeks.
The Pentagon's top brass supports the change, and a Defense Department survey regarding "don't ask, don't tell" indicates broad support or indifference toward repeal. But front-line troops are more mixed: Nearly 50 percent of the Army's combat elements told surveyors that repeal would have a negative effect.
NPR talked to service members and their families about their views on ending the ban.
'Now Was Not The Right Time To Do It'
Near Fort Drum in upstate New York, even talking about "don't ask don't tell" makes people uncomfortable. Fort Drum is a sprawling post of 20,000 soldiers. Like many military communities, the surrounding area is rural and conservative.
Manju Sampson, a towering sergeant in green camouflage who recently came back from Iraq, says that as long as soldiers "concentrate on doing their job" and "don't let their personal life interfere with their work life — then I have no problem with nothing."
Melinda Merrill's husband is a sergeant at Fort Drum. She says preventing openly gay soldiers from serving is wrong. "I don't think it's fair," she says. "I think they should be allowed." But Merrill admits the new policy will take some getting used to.
Over at Quantico, one of the biggest Marine Corps bases in the world, located about 30 miles south of Washington, D.C., groups of Marines didn't break stride as they responded to NPR's question about the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."
"No comment," many said.
But in a coffee shop inside the base, it was a different story.
Capt. Jason Moore says the burden of fighting two wars makes the introduction of openly gay service members a matter of bad timing more than anything else.
"I think it will be a distraction," Moore says. "I think that it's just an additional variable in a Marine Corps that's already been tested to the limit for the last nine years. I think if they wanted to change the policy, now was not the right time to do it, if at all."
At Charlie's Number One Military barbershop in downtown Quantico, one of a half-dozen barbershops along main street, Andrew Robinson says he doesn't have any personal objections to a Marine being openly gay — but the new policy won't be easy to implement.
"It just depends how they bring it along. If they force it really fast, it's probably not going to work," he says. "They need to gradually let this come into play."
'Nothing's Going To Change'
Meanwhile, at Fort Campbell on the Tennessee-Kentucky border, thousands of soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division are waiting to ship out to war. Among them is Pvt. Devere Artis, 22, who deploys to Afghanistan in March.
"I know numerous gay soldiers that I serve with, that are in my company, that I fight side by side with," Artis says.
Artis, who has already served two tours — one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan — says deployments mean close quarters. "I would say 10 percent of the time you're over there, you're going to be nude in front of another soldier, washing up, changing your clothes, getting yourself ready for work," he says.
He's fine with lifting the ban on serving openly, but mostly so he'll know for sure who is gay. He says he still doesn't want homosexual behavior in his face.
"[If] you like flowers and daisies, like flowers and daisies, but don't do it while we're trying to stick together so we can come back alive," he says.
Miguel Lopez is retired after being injured in combat. He joined the Army after serving in the Navy, where he says it seemed more acceptable to be gay — but not for infantry.
"Now that's a whole different world right there," Lopez says. "I think you should know who you have on your team. You should know, because when the moment comes ..." Lopez stops himself, saying there's no reason to believe gay soldiers are any less brave.
There are combat troops who see no problems. Spc. Brad Baldwin leaves for Afghanistan next year.
"Still going to go do my job, do my duty, and nothing's going to change just because some policy changes and somebody's living a different lifestyle than me," Baldwin says.
Reporting by Blake Farmer of member station WPLN, David Sommerstein of North Country Public Radio and NPR's Art Silverman