WASHINGTON — Although most servicemembers believe that a repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law would have little real impact on their work, fully half of frontline troops surveyed expressed serious concerns that allowing openly gay troops in the ranks could hurt their mission readiness, morale and ability to work effectively.
According to the Pentagon working group’s study of a possible repeal, combat troops reported higher levels of discomfort with serving alongside gay colleagues than did other servicemembers. And repeal opponents are seizing on those numbers as proof of their contention that allowing gays to serve openly could disrupt vital war operations.
“If anything, the survey results make a compelling case for keeping current policy in place and avoiding any type of distraction for our nation’s military and its combat mission,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Among troops from Army combat units, 48 percent predicted a repeal would negatively affect their team’s ability to “work together to get the job done.” That number rose to 58 percent among Marine combat units. Sixty percent of the combat Marines and 49 percent of combat soldiers said they would not be able to trust an openly gay colleague.
Less than a third of the other servicemembers surveyed expressed those concerns.
On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged that the combat troops’ opposition “deserves serious attention and consideration,” but also added that he does not see that as a serious barrier to passing a repeal of the 17-year-old law.
“This can be done, and should be done, without posing a serious risk to military readiness,” he said. “However, these findings do lead me to conclude that an abundance of care and preparation is required if we are to avoid a disruptive and potentially dangerous impact on the performance of those serving at the tip of the spear in America’s wars.”
The working group report also noted that troops who have served with a gay colleague in a war zone reported few problems. Among troops who served with a gay colleague in combat, 71 percent said that individual’s sexual orientation had little or no effect on their unit’s performance.
But opponents maintain that the combat units’ concerns should be a stopping point for the repeal efforts.
Tony Perkins, a Marine Corps veteran and president of the conservative Family Research Council President, said “no level of risk should be acceptable merely to advance a radical social agenda.”
Marine Sgt. Justin Lugo, serving with a team of Marines training Afghan police recruits in Herat province, said he has no problem with gay people or their lifestyle. But other Marines do.
“I know some serious homophobes,” said Lugo, 25, of Fayetteville, N.C. “It’s like racism. You know somebody’s going to be beating somebody up, just like a black person fighting a white guy for making a racist comment.”
He doesn’t think there needs to be separate barracks or special units for gay Marines, “but there should be special protection” to make sure they aren’t singled out.
Marine Lance Cpl. John White, also a trainer in Herat, said he wouldn’t have a problem with the repeal as long as no gay Marine hits on him. But front-line troops might be more wary of lifting the repeal because combat units spend so much time together, often in very close quarters.
Any sexual tensions or fears troops might distract a unit from its life-or-death mission, said White, a 20-year-old from Calistoga, Calif.
“That’s the reason females aren’t allowed in infantry,” he said.
Gates said the four service chiefs raised concerns about the effects of a repeal on those combat units, and will expand on those issues when they testify before the Senate on Friday.
Former Army Sgt. Darren Manzella served two tours in Iraq as a medic, the first concealing his sexual orientation and the second with all of his colleagues knowing he was gay. He said the two tours were nearly identical in terms of mission readiness, morale and camaraderie.
“I think the concerns are mostly due to a lack of experience with gay soldiers,” he said. “It really doesn’t take effect until you serve with someone who is gay or lesbian, and see them working alongside you as a professional.”
The working group’s report repeated that same idea.
“These survey results reveal to us a misperception that a gay man does not ‘fit’ the image of a good warfighter — a misperception that is almost completely erased when a gay servicemember is allowed to prove himself alongside fellow warfighters,” the report stated.
“We conclude that the risks of repeal within warfighting units of all services, while somewhat higher than the force generally, remain within acceptable levels when coupled with our recommendations for implementation.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Geoff Ziezulewicz contributed to this story from Afghanistan.