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EXCLUSIVE: Marine leads ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ fight

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Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James T. Conway has emerged in internal Pentagon deliberations as the most outspoken opponent of permitting gay men and women to serve openly in the U.S. military, according to a former senior Pentagon official.

Most of the senior brass hold deep reservations about President Obama's pledge to end the ban on gays in the military, especially in the middle of two wars that have put extra stress on the military, down to the platoon level, where soldiers and Marines would be expected to bond with openly gay colleagues.

But Gen. Conway has gone further than others in stating his opposition to a change in policy, according to the former official, who has been privy to private conversations on the matter. "He feels very strongly that [removing the ban] would be disruptive, and he opposes it," said the former official.

Gen. Conway's private remarks stand in contrast to public utterances by other service chiefs, who have restricted themselves to repeating a well-rehearsed mantra: If Congress introduces a bill to repeal the ban, they will discuss it with the chain of command. If Congress changes the law, they will follow the law.

Asked by The Washington Times whether Gen. Conway has expressed opposition to the president's proposed policy change, his spokesman, Maj. David Nevers, did not answer directly.

But, he said in a formal statement: "Our Marines are currently engaged in two fights, and our focus should not be drawn away from those priorities. When the time is right, we have full confidence that we will be asked to provide the best military advice concerning the readiness of the Corps as it relates to this issue."

Gen. Conway is the only chief known to have actively surveyed his generals on the impact of removing the ban. Maj. Nevers declined to discuss the commandant's communications. Gen. Conway's four-year term ends in November 2010.

The military's long-held ban on gay service members, enacted first as a regulation and later as law, is based on the belief that the presence of openly gay personnel would disrupt unit cohesion.

Mr. Obama promised during his election campaign to end "don't ask, don't tell," the policy signed into law by President Clinton. The policy ended the practice of asking prospective recruits about their sexuality, but continued to prohibit openly gay men and women from serving.

Mr. Obama repeated his vow during a speech Oct. 10 before a gay rights group, though so far little has been done inside the Pentagon, nor has there been any vote on Capitol Hill to advance his goal.

The House Armed Services Committee will not hold a hearing on a repeal bill until the winter or spring, meaning the earliest floor vote would not come before the middle of 2010. Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee plan a hearing before Congress goes on recess this year, but none is scheduled to date. The White House has not submitted a repeal bill to the Hill.

The four-star chiefs of the Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Army have said little on the topic in public and have not been pressed by Congress to provide their professional opinions. All four declined to answer when asked for their personal opinions on the ban by The Times, except to say they will abide by the law.

"They are not going to talk until it's time to talk," said a senior officer inside the Pentagon, who added the chiefs will discuss any specific legislative proposal in private with the chain of command - meaning Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and the president.

Officials say the topic rarely comes up inside the Pentagon, although they know it has been discussed privately by Mr. Gates, Adm. Mike Mullen and the Joint Chiefs.

Adm. Mullen, who as Joint Chiefs chairman is the president's top military adviser, has said several times that the armed forces need to move deliberately in carrying out the president's wish.

"I think it's important, as we look to this change, that it be done in a way that doesn't disrupt the force at a time where it's under a lot of stress," Adm. Mullen told the Military Times in May. "And that, to me, means in a measured, deliberate way, over some time -- to be determined. And I don't know what that would be."

Kevin Nix, spokesman for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which is spearheading the repeal effort, said the House bill now has 182 co-sponsors, still short of a majority.

"We're just trying to get to 218 to show that the bill is ready," said Mr. Nix, who added that senators plan to introduce a bill shortly.

"We expect a bill introduction for the first time in 16 years," he said. "We definitely expect a hearing this year. There are still things that need to happen, but we are definitely on the brink of a bill in the Senate. ... We want repeal done in 2010. Done, to the president's desk for a signature."

Rep. Patrick J. Murphy, Pennsylvania Democrat, is leading the repeal campaign in the House. Kate Hansen, his spokeswoman, said he has commitments from 16 members in addition to the 182 co-sponsors.

That would bring him to 198 votes, still well short of a majority. But Ms. Hansen said Mr. Murphy has not spoken to all House members.

Gay rights groups cite recent polls that show the public now supports repealing the ban, unlike in 1993, when polls showed the opposite. That year, Congress stopped Mr. Clinton's bid to change what was then only a regulation. He ended up signing the ban into law.

Gallup reported in June that 58 percent of the conservatives it polled favored allowing openly gay men and women to serve. Overall, 69 percent of adults support ending the ban, Gallup said.

"This year, it's the first time that polling has picked up that a majority of conservatives favor gay people serving openly," Mr. Nix said.

Elaine Donnelly, who heads the Center for Military Readiness and argues in favor of the ban, pointed a reporter toward a recent article she wrote for the American Thinker.

"Consistently small numbers and percentages of people discharged due to homosexuality contradict any claim that a national security emergency justifies repeal of the law," she wrote.

"And it is not convincing to hold up the small, dissimilar militaries of foreign nations, none of which have adopted the extreme agenda being proposed for our military, as role models for America's forces. Nor does it help to ignore the stated opinions of more than 1,150 retired flag and general officers and current military personnel."

The Pentagon discharged 633 men and women under the ban in fiscal 2008, which ended Sept. 30, 2008.

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