WASHINGTON — The chief of the US Marine Corps said Tuesday that ending a ban on openly gay troops in the military could jeopardize the lives of Marines in combat by undermining closely knit units.
General James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps and an opponent of lifting the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" prohibition, cited a Pentagon study saying Marines fighting in Afghanistan were worried that permitting gays to serve openly could disrupt "unit cohesion."
"When your life hangs on a line, on the intuitive behavior of the young man ... who sits to your right and your left, you don't want anything distracting you," Amos told reporters at the Pentagon.
"I don't want to lose any Marines to distraction. I don't want to have any Marines that I'm visiting at Bethesda (hospital) with no legs," he said.
He added that "mistakes and inattention or distractions cost Marines' lives. That's the currency of this fight."
His comments were the toughest yet on the issue, after he testified at a congressional hearing that he opposed lifting the ban in a time of war.
Amos said Marines in combat in Afghanistan sent a "very strong message" in the Pentagon's study released earlier this month, expressing opposition to repealing the ban in a survey.
"I have to listen to that," he said.
The general, however, said the survey showed that Marines outside of war zones had fewer objections and were mostly ready to carry out the change.
President Barack Obama has called for scrapping the 1993 law that requires homosexuals to keep their sexual orientation quiet or face discharge from the armed forces.
Activists supporting an end to the ban criticized the Marine general's comments, saying other countries had opened the door to gay soldiers without a problem.
"The experience of all foreign militaries has been that the integration of gays and lesbians is accomplished successfully when it is done quickly and with the full support of military leaders," Fred Sainz, vice president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement.
"We?re still hoping that General Amos heeds these lessons," Sainz said.
The US Senate last week rejected an attempt to end the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" rule, despite appeals from the top ranking US military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, and the defense secretary, Robert Gates.
The result was a disappointment for Obama, who has made repealing the law a priority in the "lame duck" session of Congress following the November elections.
Obama's fellow Democrats are pressing for another vote on the issue, but it remains unclear if the measure will win enough support in the final days of the current session.
Republicans, who oppose scrapping the ban, will take control of the House of Representatives from January and Democrats in the Senate will see their majority dwindle to 53 out of 100, meaning the move is highly unlikely to pass during the next session of Congress.
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