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'Don't ask, don't tell' repeal brings relief for gay soldiers

The repeal of "don't ask don't tell" and the pending ability of gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military came late for Philippe Kalmanson.

Despite a good service record over more than nine years, he was run out of the military in 1991 for being gay.

"And now I'm 51, much too old to go back in and I have a bad back," says Kalmanson of Lake Worth. "But I'm ecstatic about this change in policy. I'm over the moon with the fact that they have finally done away with don't ask don't tell."

Both houses of Congress voted last week to end the policy, in place since 1993, which allowed gays and lesbians to serve in the military, but only if they hid their sexual orientation.

The votes last week and President Barack Obama's promise to sign the legislation Wednesday, don't immediately allow gays and lesbians to serve openly. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the uniformed leaders of the military must certify that implementation of the policy will not adversely affect "standards of military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion and recruiting and retention of the Armed Forces."

In other words, the members of the military must be eased into the new policy, which Pentagon leaders have said could take as long as a year. The Defense Department earlier this month reported the results of an eight-month study, including interviews with 115,000 military personnel, which found that 70 percent believed allowing homosexuals to serve openly would not have a negative effect on military performance.

Eight Republican senators joined Democrats in the historic 65-31 Senate repeal vote Saturday. But other Republicans, led by former GOP presidential candidate and Vietnam Era military officer John McCain of Arizona, continued to oppose the move, saying that enough uniformed personnel were against the change to make it risky.

For Tony Plakas, CEO of Compass Community Center in Lake Worth, a facility for gays and lesbians, a generational disconnect exists between people of McCain's generation and the younger people who enter the military today.

"We have a bunch of these older government representatives talking about what 18- to 22-year-olds can handle and they don't have any idea of the changes going on in this society," says Plakas. "Kids are way ahead on this."

Plakas says his experience is that today's teenagers are generally more accepting of gays and lesbians and that the new policy will not be as hard to implement as some conservative legislators claim. He says sexual orientation is openly discussed on social networking sites, such as Facebook, and on television programs, like "Glee," both of which are wildly popular with young people.

"When some people say to me that this is a historic change in policy, I say, 'No, this is a prehistoric,'" says Plakas. "This should have been changed long ago. We are about the only First World country that doesn't already allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military."

Kalmanson says that implementation will take some doing.

The military will have to decide on living arrangements for gays and lesbians and their mates, policies regarding the medical coverage and use of px's and commissaries.

"They will have to work the bugs out," he says.

As for Olivia Zanfardino, 26, of West Palm Beach, a veteran of the 482nd Air Force Reserve, based in Homestead, the vote on Saturday allowed her for the first time to use her own name in an article about her military service and her lesbian orientation.

The last time she was interviewed by The Palm Beach Post, in March, Zanfardino, used an alias, "Isabel," and was photographed in silhouette, so she would not be recognized.

Zanfardino has been trying to leave the reserve, for personal reasons apart from the don't ask don't tell policy, but after years of having to keep her sexual orientation secret from many of her military mates, she was pleased with the votes in Congress.

"It surprised me," she said. "And, yes, I'm happy about it."

Zanfardino says worries that gays and lesbians serving openly will somehow interfere with military performance are wrong.

"It's just the opposite," she says. "Gays and lesbians often excel. I'm an expert marksmen and I was a group leader."

But she says that in conversations with other gay and lesbian members of the military she had heard they are being cautious about letting their superiors know about their sexual orientation.

"People are staying in the closet until the last breath is drawn on that bill," she said, referring to the fact that military leaders need to certify the changes.

But she said the fact that comfortable majorities in both houses of Congress backed the end of don't ask don't tell -- with Obama championing the cause -- was inspiring for gays and lesbians.

"There is a lot of enthusiasm and pride at the progress we have made," she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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