U.S. combat forces have voiced strong reservations about the effects on readiness of allowing open gays in the ranks, the Pentagon said Tuesday in a report that is likely to influence a Senate vote on whether to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, in releasing a study he ordered to meet President Obama's directive to end the ban on gays in the military, disclosed that the chiefs of the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Army disagree with the report's conclusion that the impact on combat readiness would be "low."
Nearly 60 percent of Army and Marine Corps warriors said open homosexuals in the ranks would damage war-fighting capabilities, the study found.
"For this reason, the uniformed service chiefs are less sanguine than the working group about the level of risk of repeal with regard to combat readiness," said Mr. Gates, who supports repeal, as does Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The Pentagon survey of all troops, be they in desk jobs or in the field, found about 70 percent said open gays would have positive, mixed or no effect on unit cohesion.
By contrast, combat troops, who live in intimate surroundings while deployed, overwhelming reported that open gays would undermine military readiness, or preparedness for combat.
The four-star officers are scheduled to testify Friday before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Senate Democrats are trying to garner enough Republican support to bring repeal legislation to the floor during the lame-duck session of Congress, after having failed to get the needed 60 votes in September.
The Pentagon survey of more than 115,000 troops showed that 44 percent said unit effectiveness in ground and sea units would be negatively affected. That number jumps to nearly 60 percent among Army and Marine Corps combatants.
Opponents of lifting the ban say it is the repeal's effect on these units - the infantry, armor and special operations - that is most important because they are doing the majority of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Said the report: "Among the services, the Marines were consistently more negative in their responses about the effect of repeal. The combat arms communities in both the Army and the Marine Corps were also more negative about the effect of repeal than others in their services."
Still, Army Gen. Carter F. Ham and Pentagon General Counsel Jeh C. Johnson, who co-chaired the Comprehensive Review Working Group, concluded that impact on readiness will be low if the military begins a phased introduction of open gays, coupled with strong command leadership.
"Based on all we saw and heard, our assessment is that, when coupled with the prompt implementation of the recommendations we offer below, the risk of repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell to overall military effectiveness is low," the two wrote.
"We conclude that, while a repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell will likely, in the short term, bring about some limited and isolated disruption to unit cohesion and retention, we do not believe this disruption will be widespread or long-lasting, and can be adequately addressed by the recommendations we offer below."
Mr. Gates, however, expressed sympathy for the view of the service chiefs, who by law are responsible for maintaining combat readiness at a high level.
"The concerns of combat troops as expressed in the survey do not present an insurmountable barrier to successful repeal of don't ask, don't tell, " Mr. Gates said. "This can be done and should be done without posing a serious risk to military readiness.
"However, these findings do lead me to conclude that an abundance of care and preparation is required if we are to avoid a disruptive and potentially dangerous impact on the performance of those serving at the tip of the spear in America's wars."
Gen. James F. Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, has stated that he opposes repeal at a time of two wars but will follow the law. His predecessor, Gen. James T. Conway, took the same position. None of the chiefs endorsed repeal during testimony before Congress last winter.
The working group report recommended no separate berthing or shower facilities for homosexuals and heterosexuals. Gay unions will not be recognized because federal law defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
Gen. Ham and Mr. Jeh wrote that they rejected service members concerns that open homosexuals would harass or try to seduce colleagues.
"Repeatedly, we heard service members express the view that 'open' homosexuality would lead to widespread and overt displays of effeminacy among men, homosexual promiscuity, harassment and unwelcome advances within units, invasions of personal privacy, and an overall erosion of standards of conduct, unit cohesion, and morality," they wrote.
"Based on our review, however, we conclude that these concerns about gay and lesbian service members who are permitted to be 'open' about their sexual orientation are exaggerated, and not consistent with the reported experiences of many service members."
The Ham-Johnson team found widespread opposition to repeal from military chaplains on moral and religious grounds. The report said existing regulations are adequate to protect their freedom of speech.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, led the filibuster that blocked a vote on repeal. He has said he wants the Pentagon to conduct a specific study on the effects of open gays on combat units, as opposed to a study on how to implement repeal.
"Sen. McCain and his staff are currently in the process of carefully reviewing the Pentagon's report regarding the repeal of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Law," his spokeswoman said.
Other Republicans have joined him in opposing a vote now.
"Throughout this debate, the focus has been on what overturning current policy would mean for recruitment, retention and combat readiness," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and member of the House Armed Services Committee. "In going over the 100-plus-question survey, there are only a handful of questions pertaining to direct combat experience and, even then, the questions do little to provide any insight into how combat units might be impacted. That is a critical distinction that the report fails to identify."
Social conservative groups also blasted the survey.
"Sadly, today's report, and the 10 months of work by the Comprehensive Review Working Group, may be of little value to Congress, because they failed to address the central question - whether overturning the current law would enhance our nation's ability to fight and win wars," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. "By beginning with the premise that the law would be overturned, and exploring only how to implement such a change, the conclusion that such a change would be feasible was foreordained."
The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which has led the charge in Washington to abolish the law, applauded the Pentagon report and sent a warning to the four service chiefs.
"This exhaustive report is overwhelmingly positive and constructive," the network said. "The Pentagon validated what repeal advocates and social scientists have been saying about open service for over a decade. Still, some initial resistance may come from one or more of the service chiefs - the very leaders who will be charged with implementing this change. Those chiefs will need to salute and lead in bringing about this needed change."
If Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, fails in his attempt to get 60 votes to bring a repeal vote to the floor, it is unlikely that Congress will act next year because Republicans will control the House and Senate Republicans will have six more seats.
With that prospect, Mr. Gates issued a plea to act now for fear the courts will force an instant repeal, as a U.S. District Court judge in Los Angeles did over the summer before an appeals court blocked the order.
"I believe this is a matter of some urgency because, as we have seen in the past year, the federal courts are increasingly becoming involved in this issue," the defense secretary said. "Just a few weeks ago, one lower court ruling forced the department into an abrupt series of changes that were no doubt confusing and distracting to men and women in the ranks."
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