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Military Commanders Show Split Over Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal

December 3, 2010 at 6:53 PM EDT
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The commanders of the U.S. armed forces sat side by side at a hearing on Capitol Hill Friday but they were split over repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding openly gay service members. Jim Lehrer reports.
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight: Senators get some four-star opinions on repealing don’t ask, don’t tell.

The commanders of the armed forces sat side-by-side at today’s hearing, but they split over repealing don’t ask, don’t tell now.

The Marine Corps, Army and Air Force all expressed serious concerns.

GEN. JAMES AMOS, commandant, Marine Corps Commandant: This is a bad time, senator.

JIM LEHRER: A day earlier, their bosses testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Defense Secretary Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, fully supported reversing the 1993 policy that’s expelled nearly 14,000 service members. They also endorsed Pentagon findings that most troops don’t seem worried.

But General James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, took issue with the timing of the drive to roll back the ban. He pointed to profound concerns in combat units.

GEN. JAMES AMOS: Based on what I know about the very tough fight in Afghanistan, the almost singular focus of our combat forces as they train up and deploy into theater, the necessary tightly woven culture of those combat forces that we are asking so much of at this time, and, finally, the direct feedback from the survey, my recommendation is that we should not implement repeal at this time.

JIM LEHRER: Army Chief of Staff George Casey also advocated putting off any change for now.

GEN. GEORGE CASEY, chief of staff, Army: One of the concerns I have is that our captains, our company commanders and 1st sergeants and mid-level leaders, and officers and noncommissioned officers, have a lot on their plate right now. And this will be another element that will be put on their plate.

JIM LEHRER: But the vice chair of the Joint Chiefs, Marine General James Cartwright, said there’s no reason to wait. The commandant of the Coast Guard and the chief of naval operations, Admiral Gary Roughead, agreed.

ADM. GARY ROUGHEAD, chief, Naval Operations: The U.S. Navy can implement the necessary changes to policies and procedures, even in a time of war and increasing global commitments.

JIM LEHRER: Roughead was asked, as were all the chiefs, if he consulted counterparts in foreign militaries that now permit the open service of gays and lesbians.

ADM. GARY ROUGHEAD: The way that I would characterize the response from those chiefs of navies that have a policy that allows gays and lesbians to serve, the term that I would bring to mind is a nonevent.

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D-Mich.), Armed Services Committee Chairman: Is a what?

ADM. GARY ROUGHEAD: A nonevent. It just happened, and they got on with things.

JIM LEHRER: All of the military leaders said they think the policy will eventually be reversed. And, much like Gates and Mullen, they said they prefer Congress repeal the ban and give them time to make it work, instead of having the federal courts order an immediate change.

There was some disagreement over trying to phase in repeal at different intervals in different services.

GEN. JAMES AMOS: Yes, that would probably be very — that would probably be acceptable for us.

GEN. NORTON SCHWARTZ, chief of staff, Air Force: I would suggest that having some differences between implementation timelines within different communities of the armed forces is not a way to proceed.

JIM LEHRER: Whether implementation will happen at all is now in doubt. The chance of repealing don’t ask, don’t tell in the lame-duck Congress appears slim.