By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 15, 2010; 12:01 AM
The Marine Corps' top general suggested Tuesday that allowing gays to serve openly in the military could result in more casualties because their presence on the battlefield would pose "a distraction."
"When your life hangs on the line," said Gen. James F. Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, "you don't want anything distracting. . . . Mistakes and inattention or distractions cost Marines' lives."
In an interview with newspaper and wire service reporters at the Pentagon, Amos was vague when pressed to clarify how the presence of gays would distract Marines during a firefight. But he cited a recent Defense Department survey in which a large percentage of Marine combat veterans predicted that repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" law would harm "unit cohesion" and their tight-knit training for war.
"So the Marines came back and they said, 'Look, anything that's going to break or potentially break that focus and cause any kind of distraction may have an effect on cohesion,' " he said. "I don't want to permit that opportunity to happen. And I'll tell you why. If you go up to Bethesda [Naval] Hospital . . . Marines are up there with no legs, none. We've got Marines at Walter Reed [Army Medical Center] with no limbs."
Amos had said previously that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly could cause "distractions" and "risks" for combat units. But his remarks Tuesday were the first time that he or any other senior military leader has suggested that repealing the 17-year-old "don't ask, don't tell" law could directly endanger troops and cost lives.
The Defense Department survey, released last month, found that 58 percent of those in Marine combat arms units predicted that repeal would negatively affect their ability to "work together to get the job done." In comparison, 48 percent of those in Army combat units felt the same way.
Overall, 70 percent of those in the military said they believe repeal would have little or no effect on their units.
Amos, the first Marine commandant with a background as a jet pilot, has been outspoken on the subject since he was confirmed by the Senate in September. In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Dec. 3, he was more critical of efforts to overturn the law than the other military branch chiefs, saying that changing the rules during wartime would be disruptive and ill-advised.
The commandant made clear Tuesday, however, that he would not resist if Congress formally integrates gays into the military, saying the Marines would "get in step and do it smartly." He noted that the Corps was "not a democracy" and that the Pentagon's survey did not amount to a referendum in which leaders were beholden to obey the whims of the force.
At the same time, he said he was obligated to listen to Marines under his command.
"Right now is a very intense period of time for a pretty healthy slice of the United States Marine Corps. This is not training," Amos said.
"The forces that wear this uniform, that are in the middle of what I call the real deal, came back and told their commandant of the Marine Corps they have concerns," Amos said.
"That's all I need. I don't need a staff study. I don't need to hire three PhDs to tell me what to interpret it," he said. "If they have concerns, I do, too. It's as simple as that."
The Marines' overall reluctance to accepting gays in the ranks stands in contrast to public opinion. About eight in 10 Americans favor allowing gays to serve openly in the military, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
The House of Representatives plans to vote Wednesday on a bill to repeal the gay ban. It is expected to pass easily, but its fate in the Senate is uncertain.
Staff writer Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report.