09/21/2011 03:36 pm ET Updated Nov 21, 2011

DADT Re-Enlistment: Discharged Troops Face Difficulty Rejoining Military

WASHINGTON -- Tuesday's parties celebrating the end of "don't ask, don't tell" are giving way to a morning-after reality: gays who left the military because of the policy may have a tough time getting back in.

Despite headlines about hundreds of discharged service members flocking to recruiting stations to re-enlist, most are unlikely to get their old jobs back.

Some discharged in the early years of the policy, which began in late 1993, are too old. Others are out of shape and won't pass the physical. But even the young and fit may find there aren't any openings.

"Successful recruiting and high retention rates, along with military force reductions, have lowered the number of positions available not only to first-time recruits, but also for prior-service members wishing to return to service," said Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez.

Those discharged under DADT "will be evaluated according to the same criteria and service requirements applicable to all prior service members seeking re-entry into the military," she said.

In other words: gays and lesbians will have to get in line with other civilians who are looking to join the military -- an institution many Americans already consider a haven in a time of 9 percent unemployment.

To be sure, many of the nearly 14,000 troops ousted under the policy -- and an untold number of others who left voluntarily because they were tired of lying about their private lives -- have moved on. But for those eager to return to the ranks, the awful economy, the drawing down of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and debt-induced Pentagon budget cuts all mean long waiting lists.

Lainez said traditionally the military services have turned to prior-service veterans to address current or projected personnel shortfalls they are unable to fill with new recruits. Yet ever since the economy crashed in 2008, the Pentagon has had no trouble recruiting and retaining troops and the number of specialties left unfilled has been "greatly reduced, which in turn reduces the number of opportunities for those wishing to return to duty," she said.

While the number of gay veterans turned down for re-enlistment isn't available, Stars and Stripes recently reported a typical situation involving a former sailor. Discharged under DADT, he sought his old job back as a mass communications specialist only to be told that position was overstaffed by 104 percent.

Prior-service troops historically represent about 5 percent of active-duty enlisted recruits. In 2007, at the height of the Iraq war troop surge, they made up 8 percent. But last year, according to Defense Department statistics, prior service recruits accounted for just 3 percent of newly enlisted active-duty members.

While some with critical skills such as prominent activist Dan Choi, an Arab linguist ousted for being gay, may have an easier time returning, others may have to find a new line of work.

"Each service can provide more information on its current waiting lists" for specific jobs, Lainez said. "I would encourage any prior service member who wants to return to contact a recruiter -- they can discuss what skills are in high demand."