By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 11:27 PM
President Obama vowed during his State of the Union address Tuesday to end enforcement of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy this year, providing the clearest indication yet that the ban on gays openly serving in uniform will end in a matter of months, not years as some have feared.
He signed legislation in December ending the 17-year gay ban, formally beginning a process that requires the Pentagon to make any changes necessary to end the ban and inform the armed forces of the changes. The policy would formally end 60 days after Obama, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, inform lawmakers in writing that the process is complete.
The Pentagon is expected in the coming days to outline its plans to train military commanders, chaplains, and the rank and file, a process described by Gates and other military leaders as daunting if they determine that the force's 2.2 million troops should undergo training on the changes in personnel policy.
Regardless, "starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love," Obama said Tuesday evening.
In his 2010 address, the president urged Congress to pass legislation authorizing the end of the policy, and his vow to formally end it this year confirms his commitment, gay rights leaders said Wednesday.
"Not only does repeal mean troops will be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve, but our nation will be stronger with the best and brightest able to serve in uniform," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, which aggressively lobbied for repeal.
Obama also called on some of the nation's most prestigious colleges and universities to again permit Reserve Officers' Training Corps programs on campus, a longtime concern for Gates.
Columbia, Harvard and Yale universities, among others, have banned ROTC programs on their campuses since the Vietnam War. In recent years, campus activists have cited the military's enforcement of "don't ask, don't tell" as a reason to continue the ban.
"It is time to leave behind the divisive battles of the past," Obama said Tuesday. "It is time to move forward as one nation."
Gates, the former president of Texas A&M University, in 2008 called on academic institutions "move past whatever antagonism to ROTC still exists and demonstrate respect at the highest levels for those who choose to serve."
He met recently with Yale President Richard C. Levin to discuss allowing ROTC on campus. Any agreement would have to be reviewed by the faculty and another panel, a Yale spokeswoman said.
Harvard is seeking similar conversations with the military about restoring ROTC programs, a spokesman said.
Columbia's University Senate is reviewing whether to reinvite the ROTC program to campus and plans to survey students and faculty on the issue, a spokesman said Wednesday.
Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger has warned, however, that allowing ROTC programs on campus might take some time as universities debate the issue.
"This has been a difference of principle that I think no one has wanted, but it has been a longstanding and very difficult matter," Bollinger said last year. "If it were resolved with the elimination of 'don't ask, don't tell,' there would be an enormous feeling of gratitude and openness, more openness to the relations with the military."
Bollinger also serves on the board of The Washington Post Co.