Updated: September 20, 2011 at 12:00 am
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — They were young children — mere kids 18 years ago when the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays serving openly in the military took effect. But over two decades, attitudes shifted, America changed and these youngsters grew up, winning coveted spots to study in the top military academies.
Now they are giving a collective shrug to Tuesday's end of the "don't ask, don't tell" era.
The nation's military leaders of tomorrow say they have less preoccupation with the sexual orientation of their colleagues than generations before them. And gay students are quietly reporting that a burden is being lifted that had weighed down those of same-sex orientation who went before them through the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Air Force Academy.
In interviews at all three academies, midshipmen and cadets tell The Associated Press that the once-thorny issue of homosexuality just doesn't create the controversy it once did. Students who weren't even in their teens at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have grown up in a nation at war. They say competence and character are what matter to them — not sexual orientation.
"The United States has been ready for a long time for them to be able to serve openly, and they deserve to serve openly," said Naval Midshipman Lorenzo Santos, of King George, Va., interviewed recently in Annapolis. "They're going to do the job, the same job, just as well as anybody else, and they're going to risk their lives besides everyone else. I mean, they should be allowed to serve honorably and have no discrimination."
Gay activists and others say such talk on the campuses bears out a shift in attitudes regarding sexual orientation.
"They are of a generation that doesn't really care," said Dan Choi, a gay activist, former Army lieutenant and West Point graduate who was discharged from the military for revealing his orientation.
Choi famously handcuffed himself to a fence outside the White House in November 2010 to protest the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Placed on federal trial in the nation's capital last month on a charge of failing to obey an order to leave the area, he testified that he was being harshly prosecuted because he was gay and outspoken. The judge put his trial on hold Aug. 31, and he claimed a victory.
Under "don't ask don't tell," a practice adopted in 1993, gays were allowed to serve as long as they did not openly acknowledge their sexual orientation. Commanders were not allowed to ask.
Ever since President Barak Obama signed a law last December opening the way for Tuesday's repeal, the policy has been fading out. Already, the Pentagon says 97 percent of the military has undergone training in the new law. And for weeks, the military services have been accepting applications from openly gay recruits.
Two gay West Point cadets who spoke to AP on condition of anonymity because the policy was still in force when they were interviewed earlier this month, said they don't expect their lives to change dramatically.
But they say some changes are already apparent for them.
One immediate change at West Point: Gay cadets no longer have to hide their sexuality in a way they might feel violates the Cadet Honor Code, which demands that "a cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do." One former high-ranking cadet, Katherine Miller of Findlay, Ohio, has said she felt as though she were violating the code by hiding her sexuality. She cited it as a reason for leaving the academy in 2010.
A lesbian cadet at West Point, speaking anonymously, said she does not feel she is violating the Honor Code in the way that Miller did, but still says the repeal could relieve a burden for gay cadets.
"I think it's a lot about just the fact that it's going to be a lot less stressful for us," she said.
But practical changes are few.
"From what I've been talking with my fellow gay cadets about, is that we're not really going to change a lot of our everyday life," said the lesbian who will graduate in the spring. Her family and friends already know of her orientation, she noted.
She jokes she has no desire to run around and shout out of the windows. Gay activists planned celebrations Tuesday around the country. And she said she has faith in the cadets and staff at West Point as does another gay cadet in his junior year who spoke with AP.
"There are certain individuals here who may or may not act as positively to any sort of disclosure by me or my friends, but it's a case-by-case basis," said the junior. "On the whole, it's not something I would even remotely be worried about."
One researcher on the policy shift and its effect on the military academies says those campuses were out front on the issue thanks to incoming students less concerned about homosexuality than their predecessors.
Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center — a research institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, which supports the repeal — said he remembers being met with resistance when he first asked to give lectures at military academies about 10 years ago. However, he said the schools became more welcoming in recent years as professors on campus warmed to dialogue.
"They've been having the conversation internally now for five, six, seven years, depending on which campus we're talking about, so they were ahead of the rest of the military in getting ready for this change," Belkin said.
Belkin, who is releasing a book titled "How We Won," also pointed out that the academies were included in the Pentagon's 2010 study about how to implement repeal, and some professors worked on researching the issue and writing reports.
Students at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., signaled they were among those who didn't expect noticeable changes.
Cadet Samantha Berthiaume, a senior from Allen, Md., said students work hard to maintain a professional atmosphere at the school and respect differences.
"I honestly don't see it being a big issue," Berthiaume said. "The cadets are very close — as family members. This is kind of who we live with, who we work with, and so we keep it extremely professional and extremely, I guess, sanitized when there's an issue that we necessarily don't agree with."
The academies point out that they've long had rules of conduct that already cover issues that could be raised by the change.
"We aren't crazy enough to think that everything is going to be perfect and there won't be issues," said Air Force Col. Reni Renner, vice commandant culture and climate at the academy. "But we think we are postured to deal with issues that we may not have foreseen as they arise and help our cadets of whatever gender or sexual orientation that they might espouse, to live and work and grow and become officers of character for our nation."
Vice. Adm. Michael Miller, the superintendent of the Naval Academy, noted that all of the academy's students live in the same dorm — living arrangements that have long required students to respect each other.
"We've always had these standards because we have a mixed-gender dormitory," Miller said. "We won't change any of the rules. They will be equally applied."
At West Point, Chief of Staff Col. Charles Stafford noted that cadets must already adhere to strict rules of behavior that demand respect for others.
The U.S. Coast Guard Academy's leaders are welcoming the repeal, a change that could draw even more of the nation's best and smartest teens to apply at the Connecticut academy, its superintendent said.
Rear Adm. Sandra Stosz, who oversees more than 1,000 cadets and the academy's commissioned and civilian employees, said she expects very little to change on campus. But in one small change, she said non-roommates of the same gender will have to keep their barracks doors open when they study together, just as opposite-gender cadets currently do — to ensure that the policy is fairly applied.
Associated Press Writers Michael Hill, in Albany, N.Y., and Stephanie Reitz in Hartford, Conn., contributed to this report.