ARLINGTON, Va. — The nation’s top Marine Corps officer said he could not endorse a change in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law that could cause distractions or endanger the lives of Marines in combat.
Ultimately, the voices of forward-fighting combat Marines who worried about unit cohesion in the Pentagon’s survey swayed Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos, leading him to recommend that Congress not repeal the law banning openly gay Americans from military service.
“Mistakes and inattention or distractions cost Marines lives,” he said on Tuesday, explaining how he came to his decision. “That’s the currency of this fight.
“I don’t want to lose any Marines to the distraction. I don’t want to have any Marines that I’m visiting at Bethesda [National Naval Medical Center, in Maryland] with no legs be the result of any type of distraction.”
By the end of the day, that statement had drawn sharp response from pro-repeal advocates, including a call for him to step down for being out of step with his own bosses.
At the White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs responded to a question about Amos’ remarks, saying that President Barack Obama was not concerned that the Marine Corps chief continues to voice his opposition to repeal after the service chiefs have testified.
"No, I mean, look, I think their views are very well-known, just as the commander-in-chief’s views are very well-known," Gibbs said. "I think if you look at the commander-in-chief, the head of the Pentagon (Defense Secretary Robert Gates) and the chair of the Joint Chiefs (Adm. Mike Mullen), you’ll find unanimity in the belief that it’s time to do away with this policy, and that’s exactly what the President is working to do."
Amos was the only service chief to recommend against the repeal outright in his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee two weeks ago. Marine Corps leaders and survey responses have indicated the service is more reluctant to support repeal than other military branches. The Army and Air Force chiefs told Congress they preferred that repeal come later, taking a softer stance, while the Navy’s chief said his service was ready to implement repeal now.
Following that testimony, Republicans last week held their filibuster of the repeal for a second time, blocking a Democrat-led attempt to move the annual defense authorization bill closer to a final vote this year.
On Tuesday, the commandant spoke at length about how he came to his decision in an intimate, hour-long session with a small group of reporters in his Pentagon dining room.
“This was not a flippant, rush-right-in preparation,” he said. “This was a very, very deep, thoughtful — I read the report, the survey over and over again.”
When pressed to explain exactly what a breakdown of “unit cohesion” could look like and why it would endanger Marines in combat, or the larger war effort, Amos said he was unsure but that the significant concern of breakdown was good enough for him.
“I can’t explain what the expectations are. I can’t explain what they think might happen,” Amos said.
Repeatedly, Amos pointed to the survey results.
“We asked the questions, and the Marines answered them,” he added. “And I had to listen to that. That’s where I came down.”
Amos said that before early drafts hit his desk several weeks ago, he was unsure how Marines would answer the survey. He noted it found Marines in noncombat roles seemed more ready to accept repeal.
But with so many Marines engaged in Afghanistan, he thought about what could happen to small units like those in Sangin, where fighting is the heaviest by many accounts. When a firefight breaks out, he said, lives depend on “intuitive behavior” free from distraction.
“I don’t want to permit that opportunity [for distraction] to happen,” he said.
Critics pounced on Amos’ stance that “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal could lead to casualties.
“General Amos needs to fall in line and salute or resign now,” said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which advocates for repeal, in a statement. “He implied that repeal will lead to Marines losing their legs in combat. Those fear tactics are not in the interest of any servicemember.”
Amos said he felt good about his Senate testimony, especially that he was clearly allowed to deliver his “best military advice” without pressure or rebuke, and senators thanked him afterward, even though his advice was, he said, “counter to the way some folks wanted me to go.”
The commandant said he would silence his concerns should Congress vote to repeal the law.
And what if they do?
“That’s easy. I’m going to get in step and do it smartly,” he said, leading the effort with public messages, videos and personal visits with commanders.