Defense Secretary Robert Gates speaks during a news conference in Kabul on Saturday. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

Gates, on a farewell swing through Afghanistan before retiring June 30, was asked about the possibility of leaving the military during a meeting with Marines on Sunday at a base in Helmand province.

“Sir, we joined the Marine Corps because the Marine Corps has a set of standards and values that is better than that of the civilian sector,” a Marine asked Gates during a question and answer session. “And we have gone and changed those values and repealed the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.”

“We have not given the Marines a chance to decide whether they wish to continue serving under that,” the Marine said, according to reporters present for the exchange. “Is there going to be an option for those Marines that no longer wish to serve due to the fact their moral values have not changed?”

“No,” Gates responded. “You’ll have to complete your ... enlistment just like everybody else.”

“The reality is that you don’t all agree with each other on your politics, you don’t agree with each other on your religion, you don’t agree with each other on a lot of things,” the secretary said. “But you still serve together. And you work together. And you look out for each other. And that’s all that matters.”

Gates reminded the Marines that training is underway to prepare the forces for the change in policy.

“If we do this right, nothing will change,” he said. “You will still have to abide by the same rules of behavior, the same discipline, the same respect for each other that has been the case through all the history of the Marine Corps.”

The ban on gays in the military will end 60 days after President Obama certifies in writing that the military is ready to end the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Close observers and gay rights activists expect — and hope — that Obama will move to begin the process before Gates steps down.

The Marines’ comments and concerns — and willingness to raise them directly with the defense secretary — are reflected in a Pentagon-sanctioned study released last fall that found greater opposition and concern about ending “don’t ask, don’t tell” among combat Marines.

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