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The Defense Department would proceed cautiously if the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays and lesbians in the military was repealed, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday.

“From the time President Truman signed the executive order for integration in 1948, it was five years before that process was completed,” Gates said. “I’m not saying that’s a model for this, but I’m saying that I believe this is something that needs to be done very, very carefully.”

Dating back to the 1990s, “don’t ask, don’t tell” allows gays and lesbians to serve in the military as long as they are not open about their sexuality.

During the campaign, then-Sen. Barack Obama told Stars and Stripes he intended to repeal the policy.

“The key test for military service should be patriotism, a sense of duty, and a willingness to serve,” he said in August. “I will work with military leaders to repeal the current policy and ensure it helps accomplish our national defense goals.”

Speaking Thursday at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., Gates was asked what the DOD would do if President Barack Obama ordered the policy changed.

“We will do what the president tells us to,” Gates said to laughter from the audience.

He also said he and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen have begun a dialogue with President Obama on this matter.

“He is approaching this in a deliberate and cautious manner so that if we do go down that road, we do it right and we do it in a way that mitigates any downsides — problems that might be associated with it,” Gates said.

Speaking to reporters later Thursday, Gates made clear he was not prognosticating by evoking Truman’s integration in his response to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” question.

“The only thing I was saying is if we do it, it’s imperative we do it right and very carefully.”

Gates spent the week visiting the services’ war colleges to talk about his decisions to cut or curtail expensive war programs as part of the fiscal 2010 Defense budget.

On Friday, he told an audience at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., that piracy would remain a “very attractive career field” for young Somali men as long as economic conditions there are bleak.

“My view is, in terms of the availability of people to engage in this activity, we can put a lot in jail and we can kill a lot, but there will still be more,” he said.

Also Friday, Gates was asked about policies some feel are giving servicemembers an incentive to leave the military, such as the new G.I. Bill and cuts to re-enlistment bonuses.

He said he hopes the G.I. Bill provides an incentive for servicemembers to stay in the military by allowing them to transfer their education benefits to their spouses and children.

As for re-enlistment bonuses, Gates said he and the service chiefs need to take a closer look.

Recently, the Army announced it will slash re-enlistment bonuses by 50 percent for soldiers with between 10 and 14 years’ experience in some high-demand Military Occupational Specialties.

Effective April 24, bonus award levels for the Army’s Selective Re-Enlistment Bonus Enhanced Program will fall by an average of 23 percent, said Sgt. Maj. Dean Drummond, Army senior career counselor.

The Army is also reducing the number “critical” and “special critical” MOSs that rate a bonus from 61 to 53 and from 36 to 31 respectively, Drummond said.

During a recent trip to Fort Rucker, Ala., Gates learned that flight is better for Navy helicopter pilots than Army pilots.

“And so you have a problem with Army pilots wanting to join the Navy. That’s not a problem for the Navy, but it’s a problem for the Army,” he said. “So this whole area is one that I think that we need to take a close look at.”

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