WASHINGTON Defense Secretary Robert Gates sought on Friday to ease concerns among U.S. troops about plans advancing in Congress to end the military's ban on homosexuals, saying a long, careful review process lay ahead.
Gates, in his first major address to U.S. troops on the politically charged legislation, said he did not expect Congress to pass the repeal for months, perhaps not until the end of the year.
Even then, the U.S. military would have to give final approval and would not do so without a comprehensive review that included troops' input and a cautious plan for implementation.
"Every man and woman in uniform is a vitally important part of this review. We need to hear from you and your families so that we can make these judgments in the most informed and effective manner," Gates said.
"So please let us know how to do this right."
The House of Representatives on Thursday approved an amendment aimed at ending the Clinton-era "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which allows homosexuals to serve if they keep quiet about their sexual orientation but expels them if it becomes known. More legislative hurdles remain.
Recent polls show most Americans support repealing the 1993 ban, as does President Barack Obama.
But opponents, including some within the military, question changing the policy during wartime, arguing it would put added strain on troops stretched by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The top U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, a proponent of repeal, acknowledged the military is divided on the issue. "I've seen resistance. But I've also seen support," Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told National Public Radio later in the day.
Mullen expressed confidence the U.S. armed forces would eventually be able to incorporate openly serving homosexuals, but left the timing open.
"I have a great deal of confidence in our forces for lots of reasons and I think at some point in time, we'll be ready to do it," he said.
Opposition Republicans, gearing up for congressional elections in November in which they are expected to make gains, are rallying around the issue. They have accused Obama of pandering to gay rights advocates and ignoring the pressures on troops.
Gates asked troops to stay focused on the war effort and not the rhetoric in Washington.
"Do not let the on-going political debate distract you from what is important -- our critical mission to defend our country and our duty to uphold the values represented by the uniform you wear," he said, in an address aired on TV by the Pentagon.
Republican Senator John McCain, Obama's opponent in the 2008 election, has spoken out against the repeal. He points to letters from the heads of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines saying they wanted Congress to wait until the Pentagon completed its internal review before acting.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin noted the Pentagon still had a big say in the process and would need to change its internal regulations to implement the repeal.
"It's still up to them," he said.
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, editing by Alan Elsner and Todd Eastham)