Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway responded on Tuesday to media questions repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and offered mixed responses.
On one hand, Conway said the Marine Corps will “lead” in implementing repeal should the law change, but also said an “overwhelming number” of Marines wouldn’t want to room with someone who’s openly gay.
Conway’s remarks are notable because he’s reportedly the service chief who had most strongly come out against repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in private discussions.
In a statement, Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, a think tank on gays in the military at the University of California, Santa Barbara, praised Conway for saying the Marine Corps would lead in the implementation of repeal.
“Commandant Conway’s words are powerful,” Belkin said. “He has not been supportive of this change but he has now made clear that once the law is changed, the Marine Corps will set the pace for implementation of open service without delay.”
The transcript of his remarks on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is below:
Q: The Marine Corps in the next few years is going to be facing some big changes on two fronts. One would be the discussion about the role that the Marines play in future warfare, and then also the changes to personnel policy under — if “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is lifted. So what advice would you like to leave your successors, considering that these changes will probably take place long after you’re gone? What would you like to say on those two fronts?
A: In terms of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” you know, we will obey the law. We’re anxious to see that the survey indicates when it’s made public towards the end of the year. But I caution our Marines and our Marine leadership: If the law changes we pride our Corps in leading the services in many, many things, and we’re going to have to lead in this too. There will be a hundred issues out there that we have to solve, if the law changes, in terms of how we do business, and we cannot be seen as dragging our feet or some way delaying implementation. We’ve got a war to fight. We need to, if the law changes, implement and get on with it.
Q: General, I wanted to pick up on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” As you know, the Senate’s going to pick it up next month as part of the authorization bill. And you’ve told the Hill that you think the current policy works and that you would never ask Marines to room with a homosexual if we can avoid it. You’ve been followed by other Marine generals — Jack Sheehan, Peter Pace, Carl Mundy — in opposing a change in the policy.
And also, if you look at the polls done by Military Times, the Marines seem to oppose any change in policy by a fairly significant margin.
And I want you to focus on: What is it about the Marines that they — they oppose this change in policy, repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell?” You’ve been in the Corps for over forty years. You get out there and talk to Marines. What is it that the Marines oppose about this — more so than the other services?
A: Well, that’s a tough question to answer, Tom, because I’m not as familiar with the other services as I am my own Corps. So any comparison or contrast is difficult.
But we recruit a certain type of young American, pretty macho guy or gal, that is willing to go fight and perhaps die for their country. That’s about the only difference that I see between the other services. I mean, they recruit from a great strain of young Americans as well. They all come from the same areas and that type of thing.
So I can only think that, as we look at our mission, how we are forced to live in close proximity aboard ship, in the field for long periods of time and that type of thing, that the average Marine out there, and by the way, my own surveys indicate that it’s not age dependent, it’s not rank dependent, it’s not where you’re from; it’s, as you highlight, pretty uniformly not endorsed as the ideal way ahead. But I just think all those things have impact on the Marines. And we’d just assume not see it change. But again, we will follow the law, whatever the law prescribes.
Q: As far as living in tight quarters, is that the issue you hear mostly when you talk to Marines out in the field?
A: Well, see, we, unlike the other services, we have consciously, for decades now, billeted by twos. So if the law changes, we start out with a problem in terms of how to address that. And I’ve spoken publicly some about that in the past.
You know, we’ll deal with it. I do not believe there’s money out there to build another requirement for BEQs, to allow every Marine to have a room by his or herself. So how we deal with the billeting problem is going to one of that myriad of issues that we’ll have to face.
Q: How would you deal with it?
A: I don’t know. I don’t know.
We sometimes ask Marines, you know, what is — what is their preference. And I can tell you that an overwhelming majority would like not to be roomed with a person who is openly homosexual.
Some do not object and perhaps — you know, perhaps a voluntary basis might be the best way to start, without violating anybody’s sense of moral concern or perception on the part of their mates.
I don’t know. We’re not there yet. And it’s one of those hypotheticals at this point that we have to consider but we won’t have to deal with until the law changes, if it does.
Q: I want to take you back to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” You said something that I’d like to ask you what you meant, with precision. You talked about — when you said that, you know, some Marines are skeptical of all this, you talked about the — and your words were ‘the moral perception that Marines have of people serving in the Marine Corps who are openly gay.’ What do you mean by moral perception?
A: Barbara, we have some people that are very religious. And I think in some instances — I couldn’t begin to give you a percentage, but I think in some instances we will have people that say that homosexuality is wrong, and they simply do not want to room with a person of that persuasion because it would go against their religious beliefs. So that’s my belief about some percentage of Marines in our Corps.
Q: And what do you — if that is the case, and the law changes, as a senior commander, then — it’s a volunteer force. Should those people leave?
Should accommodations be made? What do you — what do you do about that?
A: Yeah. Well, I think, as a commander, you try to satisfy the requirements of all your Marines. And if the law changes and we have homosexual Marines, we’ll be as concerned about their rights, their privileges, their morale as we will Marines who feel differently about that whole paradigm.
So commanders — local commanders will be required to assist us in making sure that every Marine is provided for and is focused on the fight at hand.