Marines ask US to study gay policy

Want to examine how to lift ban

By Anne Flaherty
Associated Press / February 25, 2010

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WASHINGTON - The Marine Corps commandant said yesterday that the ability of US troops to fight and win wars must trump other concerns as the nation considers whether to let gays serve openly in the military.

In testimony before a House committee, General James Conway said he supports a Pentagon assessment to determine how to lift the ban. But he also suggested that civil rights ultimately would have to take a back seat if it meant tampering with the military’s ability to protect the country.

“That’s what they have been built to do under the current construct, and I would argue that we’ve done a pretty good job bringing that to pass,’’ he told the House Armed Services Committee.

“My concern would be that somehow that central purpose or focus were to become secondary to the discussion,’’ he said.

Conway is seen as the most resistant among the service chiefs to efforts underway in Congress and the Pentagon to repeal the 1993 “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ law. But his testimony indicates that he won’t stand in the way as Defense Secretary Robert Gates undertakes a comprehensive study on how to lift the ban without hurting the force.

President Obama has pledged to change the policy, saying it unfairly punishes patriots who want to serve their country. Congress would have to agree, and it’s unclear whether Democrats would have enough votes to pass the legislation.

The opinion of the service chiefs, and Conway’s in particular, is expected to factor heavily into the debate.

It’s Conway’s job to ensure that young recruits are prepared to deploy to dangerous and remote regions of the world. Because Marines frequently represent the military’s first line of attack and are dropped behind enemy lines, unit cohesion and morale are considered vital to their ability to succeed.

In 1993, opponents of President Bill Clinton’s proposal to lift the ban on gays argued successfully that it might hurt military effectiveness. Facing resistance in Congress, Clinton settled for “don’t ask, don’t tell,’’ which allowed gays to serve so long as they kept their sexual orientation a secret.

Conway’s concerns have been echoed by other service chiefs.