If gay service members are allowed to serve openly, the military will face another tough question: Should gay partners be entitled to military benefits?
Momentum appears to be building for ending the ban on gays in the military. New rules ordered Thursday by Defense Secretary Robert Gates make it harder to discharge men and women under the policy known as "don't ask, don't tell." His decision is intended as a stopgap measure as Congress weighs whether to go along with President Barack Obama's request to repeal the law.
Since the draft ended in 1973, spousal benefits have increasingly been used as an incentive to recruit and retain an effective force. Today, more than half of all troops sport a wedding ring.
Benefits for married service members include college tuition for a spouse and the right of a spouse to be at a wounded service member's bedside. Spouses also have access to military health care and commissaries worldwide, and married service members receive better housing and even extra pay when they go to war.
The ticket to qualifying for those benefits is a marriage certificate. Heterosexual couples have a choice whether to marry, but same-sex marriages are legal in only five states and Washington, D.C. Whether same-sex partnerships would be recognized by the military and what benefits might be afforded gay couples would become issues if the ban were lifted.
"It will be a whole complex row of dominoes that will fall as a result of this," said Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies at the conservative Family Research Council.
Already, Gates has included the issue of benefits in a review of how to lift the repeal, which is due Dec. 1.
Repealing the ban without offering same-sex partner benefits would be like telling gay service members they are equal but not giving them all the advantages of service, said Tiffany Belle, 33, of Long Beach, Calif., a lesbian and former sailor. "You're basically letting us be free being ourselves in the military, but then you're not letting us reap the benefits."
The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. Nathaniel Frank, a senior research fellow at the Palm Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said it's unrealistic to think the military would be out front of the rest of the government in offering benefits to unmarried partners.
"They don't do it for straight people, and they're very unlikely to do it for gay people," Frank said.
But, in addition to repealing "don't ask, don't tell," Obama has called for getting rid of the Defense of Marriage Act and has moved to extend some federal benefits to same-sex partners.
Obama has approved small changes in benefits available to same-sex couples who work for the federal government, such as visitation and dependent-care rights. The State Department extended benefits to gay diplomats, such as the right for their domestic partners to hold diplomatic passports and for paid travel to and from foreign posts.
Larry Korb, a senior fellow at the Democratic-led Center for American Progress, who served as an assistant secretary of defense in the early 1980s, said what the military would have to work through is similar to what the State Department and some federal agencies have done.
"My own personal view is that if they want to make it happen, they can," Korb said.
U.S. military officials are concerned that recruitment might suffer if they open the door to gay service members and their families. They worry that the Southern, Christian base from which the military relies heavily to fill its ranks will resist the change.
But if they don't adequately address the benefits issue, it could lead to gay service members leaving the military because there's no provision for caring for their families, said Ryan Gallucci, a spokesman for the veterans group AMVETS.
"They won't be on equal footing as their heterosexual counterparts," Gallucci said.
Some repeal proponents say that lifting the ban should be the focus, not the what ifs related to benefits. They say discussions about whether the Pentagon would recognize gay troops' partners aren't relevant now.
"Let's get rid of the ban first and then look at those issues," said Kevin Nix, a spokesman for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which seeks to repeal the law.
Frank, who has written a book about the policy, said opponents of repeal use a "thorny questions" strategy to make the process of lifting the ban seem far more complicated than it is by bringing up issues like benefits.
One former service member who is watching the debate is Melanie Costa, 34, of Franklin, Mass. The Iraq veteran said she left the military after four years in the Marines and six in the Army Reserves so she could marry a woman in Massachusetts, where gay marriage is legal. She said if the repeal is dropped she'll re-enlist - if her wife gets benefits.
"If I got deployed, and she wasn't able to get all the benefits as another married couple, there's not really a point," Costa said.
Associated Press writer Anne Flaherty contributed to this report.