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WASHINGTON — Stephen Vossler was an 18-year-old from a conservative Nebraska family when he joined the Army. So when he found out his first roommate was being kicked out of the service under the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” law — and soon afterward that his new best friend was secretly gay — he was stunned.

Today, nine years later, Vossler is an outspoken advocate for allowing homosexuals to serve openly, saying his experience is the perfect example of the transition from awkwardness to acceptance that most troops will work through if the ban is overturned.

“Are straight guys going to feel uncomfortable? Yeah, they definitely will,” the former Army intelligence officer said. “But you feel uncomfortable digging a foxhole. You feel uncomfortable riding in a Humvee for 10 hours.

“You’re gonna have to get over it,” Vossler continued. “I think there’s going to be a lot of people who are going to logic their way through this and end up saying it just doesn’t matter.”

Sometime in the next few months, lawmakers on Capitol Hill say they will begin work toward repealing the controversial law and testing those theories. At the heart of the matter: whether the U.S. military should be allowed to maintain a different set of employment rules regarding homosexuals than nearly every other U.S. public and private workplace, firing employees based solely on their sexual orientation.

Advocates of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban contend that it’s necessary because of the unique nature of military service, which includes public showers, assigned bunkmates and uncomfortably intimate working conditions. How, they argue, can a soldier concentrate on a mission if he’s worried a colleague is ogling him?

What’s more, they argue, if gays are allowed to serve openly in the military, thousands of straight servicemembers will decide to leave.

“Most of the folks who say they’d be fine with it aren’t the ones in the middle of the military, serving overseas,” said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, which supports the ban. “And those who are opposed to [lifting the ban] are told by their commanders and public affairs officers that they’re not allowed to speak.”

Opponents of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law scoff at such objections, saying they are born of fear and ignorance. Being openly gay doesn’t make someone a sexual predator, they say, and such insinuations insult the professionalism of gay troops already in the ranks who are concealing their sexual preference.

They note that similar fears about damage to “unit cohesion” were raised generations ago to try to stop the racial integration of the armed forces.

On both sides of the debate, the arguments are largely anecdotal and emotional, not driven by much hard data — perfect for dramatic and divisive hearings when Congress finally decides to hold them.

Last week, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who is gay, said Democrats are considering adding a repeal of the law to the fiscal 2011 defense budget bills, to be debated next spring and summer. And the White House recently reiterated President Barack Obama’s commitment to overturning the ban.

But just how the military — generally perceived to be a socially conservative group — will adapt to homosexuals serving openly remains a key question for many undecided lawmakers.

Publicly, Pentagon leaders have stated that they’ll follow whatever rules Congress lays down. Privately, according to news reports, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway has emerged as a vociferous opponent of allowing openly gay and lesbian servicemembers, especially during a time of war.

But at the same time, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has instructed legal experts at the Pentagon to look for loopholes around the existing law, hoping for a “more humane” interpretation that would allow some troops outed against their will to continue serving.

Although officials say unit commanders have broached the topic with their troops over the last year, no formal polls or surveys have been conducted to gauge how comfortable servicemembers would be serving alongside openly gay troops.

Robert Maginnis, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and military analyst who has spoken out in favor of the ban, said he believes that’s a deliberate decision.

“They could find out how troops really feel, but the answer could be embarrassing to the administration,” said Maginnis, who also works as an Army contractor.

A December 2006 Zogby Poll, conducted in conjunction with the University of California’s Palm Center, a gay advocacy group, surveyed veterans and active-duty personnel and found that while 26 percent believed homosexuals should be allowed to serve in the military, 37 percent did not. Most career military members surveyed were among the latter.

Earlier this year, a group of 1,000 retired flag and general officers sent a petition to the White House expressing support for keeping “don’t ask, don’t tell” in place. Most of the signatories were 50 and older.

Gay rights advocates said the officers were out of touch and that younger servicemembers do not support the law. Moreover, they contend that the few thousand troops who would refuse to serve with openly homosexual colleagues will be more than offset by new, gay enlistees.

But Donnelly disputes that.

In a Military Times survey last year, more than 14 percent of respondents said they would consider leaving the military if the ban is overturned. Critics of that survey note that it was based on voluntary responses and was not scientific, but Donnelly argues that the findings were realistic and would translate into more than 250,000 servicemembers who could choose leave the service if forced to serve alongside openly gay colleagues.

“What this change would do to the military is beyond the imagination of most troops,” she said. “And this opens the door for transsexuals, too.”

Maginnis has another concern.

“People I talk to about this are fairly concerned with what they see as the politicization of the military,” he said. “They don’t want to see the military used that way, to advance some outside agenda.”

Yet Vossler, who has worked with the pro-repeal group Servicemembers United since the summer, insists that most troops he’s encountered over the years believe repealing the law won’t be a big deal.

When he initially enlisted, Vossler said, he had never met a gay person and was horrified to find out at his first assignment that his roommate at the Defense Language Institute was no longer concealing his homosexuality. A few months later, his close friend, fellow soldier Jarrod Chlapowski, confided in Vossler that he too was gay.

“It was shocking to me,” he said. “I asked him if it was a joke. Emotionally, I wasn’t OK at first.

“But after a week of thinking about it, it didn’t matter anymore. He never made a pass. He was always very professional. He was still just Jarrod.”

Vossler said the initial discomfort largely disappeared after he realized that Chlapowski’s sexual preference and personal life had no impact on in his job or their friendship. Chlapowski opted not to re-enlist because of the law; Vossler said he saw that as a loss for the Army.

The two took part in a nationwide tour earlier this fall, speaking with veterans and active-duty troops about their experiences. Vossler said most individuals he spoke to worried about the constant discomfort of working with an openly gay servicemember, a fear he says he helped dissuade.

Still, Maginnis said anecdotes like Vossler’s aren’t enough to prove that a military without the policy will work.

“You can find individuals on both extremes, but a lot of the folks I speak with don’t understand what the hurry is,” he said. “We don’t know what effect it will have, and there are more serious issues right now for the military to deal with.”

More than 13,000 troops have been discharged from the military since 1993 under the “don’t ask” law. But gay rights groups estimate that as many as 65,000 more troops currently in the service are secretly gay, based on census data estimates that indicate around 3 percent of U.S. citizens are homosexual.

Officials at the Palm Center say even if the law changes, many won’t reveal their sexual orientation for fear of upsetting or angering their colleagues.

But even that might not be enough to calm some soldiers’ fears about sharing showers or sleeping quarters with openly homosexual troops. Maginnis said without a poll or survey, service officials have no way of gauging what the impact on retention will be.

“It’s not just a question of whether sexual orientation impacts someone’s ability to do the job,” he said. “Does it also affect people’s desire to stay? [Army officials] need to be able to go to Congress and say, ‘This is the consequence in appreciable numbers if we change.’

“If it’s 10 percent, if it’s a different number, that puts it in real dollars before they make a decision.”

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