The three service secretaries now with the power to discharge any openly gay officer under the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy have all voiced their support for a repeal of the controversial policy in the past, putting them at odds with the senior military commanders.
"It's the first time in the 20 years I've spent studying the military that there has been a split between the Defense Secretary and the Secretary of the Joint Chiefs [who have voiced support of legislative repeal] and the other chiefs," said professor David Segal, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Research on Military Organization.
A directive from Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday limited discharges under the policy to an elite team of five: the Air Force, Army, and Navy Secretaries in conjunction with the Pentagon's legal counsel and the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.
Each of these officials is a political appointee. While President Obama was granted his request for an emergency stay on a district court's ruling to overturn the law, he has supported a legislative repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" since the beginning of his term.
"I think the civilians [the three service secretaries] are in line with the administration," Segal said. "In the short run, [having a team of five] is going to slow down the process of [discharging]. In the past, up until now, fairly low ranking officers could release enlisted personnel who were gay ... which made for inconsistency."
Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said he personally supported a repeal of the law in March, during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
When asked specifically if he supported discharges based on sexual orientation, Donley said he did not. Unit cohesion "does not depend on gender or orientation; it depends on conduct," he said.
However, the service's top uniformed leader, Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz has stated he does not support a repeal.
A high-profile case that may be affected under the current situation is that of the Air Force Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach, an F-15 pilot, who admitted he was gay in 2008 after a civilian acquaintance accused him of rape. He has been fighting for an injunction declaring "don't ask, don't tell" to be unconstitutional for two years, and he's pushing to hit his 20-year service mark so that he can receive his pension, which he feels is hard-earned after nearly 90 combat missions.
A formal Pentagon assessment of opinion within the military is due in December. Army Secretary John McHugh is in part charged with the task of speaking to service members who are gay -- a technical violation of the law if they are not discharged thereafter.
McHugh said in March that it would be "counterproductive" to "take disciplinary action against someone who spoke with me openly and honestly." According to McHugh, there was an effective moratorium on discharge based on admission of homosexuality -- at least until the study is completed.
Despite the opposition to the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" by top Marine Corps general Commandant James Conway, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told Senate members in February that he supports open service.
"It's important to remember that we have gays in the military right now. It's only a question of whether they can serve openly or not," Mabus said on Feb. 25. "I've just got absolute faith in the Navy and the Marine Corps to carry out any mission that they're given, including this one, without any sort of diminution in fighting value," he said.
Segal said discharges had been climbing since the installation of the law in 1993 -- yet there has been a dramatic reduction since the U.S. has entered wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The military began to act "as if [it] really needs the people they've got," Segal said. "They can't let them go just because they're gay."
While discharges under the policy have been relatively low, Segal said they may go lower with this high-level distribution of power to discharge. "I certainly think [the discharging process] will go more slowly," Segal said. "The people [with] lower ranks who want to initiate such discharges will need to make a much stronger case."
Clifford Stanley, the undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness and the fourth member of the decision-making team, has sent memos urging service members not to change their behavior after the recent injunction and approved stay.
Stanley was appointed to the position knowing a "don't ask don't tell" repeal would be a focus of his time in office, Segal said.
"Fairly regularly, administrations have tried to get someone in the top personnel slot in the Pentagon who is sensitive to diversity issues," Segal said. "His positions [on diversity] probably generally played a role in the selection."
Stanley, a high-ranking Marine Corps major general, said in a 2001 speech that he still feels discrimination as a black man despite his rank. "The road is still not level," Stanley said, in a speech at the Pentagon during Black History Month. "We've still got a long way to go."
"I'm the person who goes into the company office and the first sergeant does everything but pay attention to me," Stanley said, adding that "all African Americans want" is a little courtesy and respect.
In a court deposition, Stanley -- who is part of the working group for the Pentagon assessment, as is the legal counsel, Jeh Johnson -- said that amending the current regulations could take several months. A policy change might affect housing, benefits, re-accession, military equal opportunity, anti-harassment, standards of conduct, and rights and obligations of the chaplain corps and others, Stanley said.
"To change all the implicated policies and underlying regulations will require a massive undertaking by the department and cannot be done overnight."