WASHINGTON (BP)–The chiefs of three branches of the military expressed serious concern Friday with repealing the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy during a time of war, with two of them even suggesting overturning it now could endanger troops on the battlefield.
All four service chiefs, along with the commandant of the Coast Guard and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee to give their thoughts on how repealing the ban on open homosexuality would impact the military. Their testimony came one day after Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen — each of whom supports a repeal — appeared before the committee.
The Pentagon released a survey of military personnel on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Nov. 30, and the Senate could take up a bill during this month’s lame duck session that would overturn the policy.
“I believe that [a repeal] would increase the risk [to effectiveness] on our soldiers, particularly on our soldiers that are deployed in combat,” General George W. Casey Jr., chief of staff of the Army, told the committee, adding that he believes there would be a “higher level of risk than is suggested in the survey.”
When asked by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R.-Ga., if a repeal could “put soldiers in a greater position of injury or perhaps loss of life,” Casey replied that “it could,” although he didn’t want to necessarily say “it would.”
General James F. Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, agreed, saying a repeal “would absolutely have an impact on the combat forces.” Asked by Chambliss if there is the potential for an increased risk of injury or death, Amos responded that in a “tightly woven fabric of that bonded unit — heavily engaged, tightly focused — I think the potential for damage is there.”
Casey, Amos and Air Force General Norton A. Schwartz all expressed concern over repeal, while Navy Admiral Gary Roughead said he favored a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The four men serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Casey and Amos pointed to data in the survey showing, for example, that 59 percent of Marines who have been in combat and 44 percent of all personnel who have been in combat said having openly homosexuals in a field environment or at sea would have a negative effect on their unit’s “effectiveness at completing its mission.” Among those in the Marine combat arms and Army combat arms, 57 percent and 47 percent, respectively, said having an openly homosexual person would negatively impact “how service members in your immediate unit work together to get the job done.”
“I believe the implementation of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in the near term will, one, add another level of stress to an already stressed force; two, be more difficult in our combat arms units; and three, be more difficult for the Army than the report suggests,” Casey said.
A repeal, Casey added, “would be a major cultural and policy change in the middle of a war.”
Even before the committee hearing, Amos had been outspoken in opposing a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
“If the law is changed,” Amos told the committee, “successfully implementing repeal and assimilating openly homosexual Marines into the tightly woven fabric of our combat units has strong potential for disruption at the small unit level as it will no doubt divert leadership attention away from an almost singular focus on preparing units for combat. … I cannot reconcile nor turn my back on the negative perceptions held by our Marines who are most engaged in the hard work of day-to-day operations in Afghanistan.
Amos added, “Could we implement repeal at this time? The answer is yes. … Should we at this time? Based on what I know about the very tough fight in Afghanistan … my recommendation is that we should not implement repeal at this time.”
Schwartz, of the Air Force, said he disagreed with the report’s assessment that the short-term risk to military effectiveness “is low.”
“That assessment, in my view, is too optimistic,” he said, calling the risk a “modest” one.
“It is difficult for me, as a member of the joint chiefs, to recommend placing any additional discretionary demand on our leadership cadres in Afghanistan at this particularly demanding time,” Schwartz said, adding that he recommends any implementation of a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal be delayed until 2012.
Implementing a repeal, Amos said, would serve to distract captains, commanders and other military leaders from their other jobs.
“I am talking about the broad number of tasks that a company commander has to do in general and in combat in particular,” Amos said. “When he is focusing his effort on implementing a new policy, he won’t be able to devote the intellectual effort to some other things.”
Senators who support the current policy and oppose a repeal, such as Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., said the service chiefs’ testimony should not be ignored.
“It’s pretty obvious … that there is significantly divided opinion on this issue,” McCain said, referencing the divide within the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “It’s very obvious to me that there is a lot more scrutiny and work to be involved before passing this legislation. That’s why we see such a diversity of views here amongst the service chiefs.”
It would be helpful, McCain said, for the committee to hear from the senior enlisted people “who will bear the brunt of the responsibilities for the training and implementation of any change in the law.” He also suggested that the various theater commanders from around the world be asked their views.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, sent a letter to McCain and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D.-Mich.) Dec. 2, saying he has “serious concerns about numerous findings in the report.”
“We do not believe it is in our nation’s best interest to allow the practice of open homosexual behavior in the military,” Land wrote.
Meanwhile, some military chaplains fear that a repeal will harm not only military effectiveness but also the religious liberty of chaplains and troops. More than 60 chaplains, including Southern Baptist chaplains, signed a letter to President Obama and Gates earlier this year expressing concern that overturning Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell would result in the marginalizing of “deeply held” religious beliefs. The concern is that chaplains who speak against homosexuality — in sermons or in counseling sessions, for instance — will have a discrimination complaint filed against them. Chaplains who preach through entire books of the Bible, the letter said, would “inevitably present religious teachings that identify homosexual behavior as immoral.”
“Thus, while chaplains fulfill their duty to God to preach the doctrines of their faith, they would find themselves speaking words that are in unequivocal conflict with official policies,” the letter said.
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.