WASHINGTON - The debate over gays in the military has been settled with a historic decision to allow them to serve openly, but big questions lie ahead about how and when the change will take place, how troops will accept it and whether it will hamper the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan and Iraq.
President Barack Obama is expected this week to sign into law the legislation that passed the Senate on Saturday, an act some believe will carry social implications as profound as President Harry S. Truman's 1948 executive order on racial equality in the military.
Obama and his top advisers must first certify that repealing the 1993 ban on gays will not damage troops' ability to fight. That ban, known as "don't ask, don't tell," has allowed gays to serve, but only if they kept quiet about their sexual orientation.
In the meantime, the restrictions will remain on the books, although it's unclear how fully they will be enforced. Some believe gay dismissal cases will be dropped as soon as Obama signs the legislation.
Until 1993, all recruits had to state on a questionnaire whether they were homosexual; if they said "yes," they could not join. Under the law, more than 13,500 were dismissed from the service.
In the years since the ban went into effect, views in the wider society have evolved. Gay marriage is now legal in five states and the District of Columbia. Opinion surveys say a majority of Americans think it's OK for gays to serve in uniform.
The repeal vote by Congress was a political victory for Obama. Even though opponents have made clear they will continue to argue against the change, Peter Mansoor, a retired Army colonel who commanded a brigade in Iraq, said Sunday he believes the military, from top commanders to foot soldiers, will accept their new orders.
"Pretty much all the heated discussion is over and now it's a matter of the more mundane aspects of implementing the law," Mansoor, a professor of military history at Ohio State University, said in a telephone interview.
Even after Obama's certification to Congress, there is a mandatory 60-day waiting period.
Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, a research institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said he expects the Pentagon to announce shortly that it needs a long time for training and education of troops, possibly lasting much of 2011.