Combat Troops' Opposition Not an 'Insurmountable Barrier' to Letting Gays Serve in Military, Defense Secretary Says

By Edwin Mora | December 3, 2010 | 5:00 AM EST

Defense Secretary Robert Gates. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

( - Although up to 60 percent of U.S. combat troops think overturning the law that bars homosexuals from serving in the military will affect “unit cohesion,” those concerns do not pose a ‘insurmountable barrier’ to repealing the statute, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a Senate panel on Dec. 2.

This week, the Pentagon released a study on the effect of repealing Title 10, U.S. Code Subsection 654, which is the law that bans homosexuals from serving in the armed forces. The study is based on a survey sent to members of the military.

The law was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993. ("Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is a separate Clinton policy directive established in December 1993, as has previously reported.)

In his testimony on Wednesday before the Senate Armed Forces Committee, Gates said, “The survey data showed that a higher proportion – between 40 and 60 percent – of those troops serving in predominantly all-male combat specialties – mostly Army and Marines, but including special operations formations of the Navy and the Air Force – predicted a negative effect on unit cohesion from repealing the current law.”

He later added, “In my view, the concerns of combat troops as expressed in the survey do not present an insurmountable barrier to a successful repeal of ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.’ 

“This can be done, and it should be done, without posing a serious risk to military readiness,” said Gates. “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 who are serving at the tip of the spear in America’s wars.”

Gates mentioned that as a result of the 40 to 60 percent of combat troops expressing concern about repealing the law, the military service chiefs are not  upbeat about changing the statue.  

“The uniformed service chiefs are less sanguine than the working group about the level of risk of repeal with regard to combat readiness,” said the defense secretary. “The chiefs will have the opportunity to provide their expert military advice to the Congress tomorrow, as they have to me and to the president. Their perspective deserves serious attention and consideration, as it reflects the judgment of decades of experience and the sentiment of many senior officers.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). ( Starr)

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the ranking member of the Senate panel that held the hearing and who is opposed to repealing the law, questioned Gates about his reaction to the combat troops’ response as described in the Pentagon study. 

Gates told McCain, “What I believe is that with proper time or preparation or training, whether it’s before deployments or after deployments, however it works out, if we are allowed to do this on our terms, I believe that those concerns can be mitigated.”

Gates went on to indicate that the combat troops’ response to repealing the law stems from their lack of experience serving in the military with homosexuals. 

“I couldn’t disagree more,” responded McCain, adding that if they are mature enough to go into combat, they are mature enough to “make a judgment on who they want to serve with and the impact on their battle effectiveness.”

Despite the Pentagon survey results about combat troops’ apprehension towards repealing the law that prohibits homosexuals from serving in the military, Admiral Mullen said, “Repeal of the law will not prove an unacceptable risk to military readiness. Unit cohesion will not suffer if our units are well-led. And families will not encourage their loved ones to leave the service in droves.”

“I do not discount for a moment the findings in the Johnson-Ham survey which indicate resistance to repeal by those in the combat arms and irregular warfare communities,” he said. “I do not find these concerns trivial or inconsequential.”

“Nor do I believe we can afford to ignore them,” said Mullen. “Given that this reluctance arises from the ranks of the very troops upon which much of the burden of these wars has fallen, we would do well to pay heed and to move forward in a deliberate and measured manner.”

In the survey, members of the military were not directly asked for their opinion on repealing the law. Critics of the survey were disconcerted by this fact. 

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen prepare to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy on Feb. 2, 2010. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

“I think in effect doing a referendum of the members of the armed forces on a policy matter is very dangerous,” Gates told Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) when he asked why the Pentagon survey failed to include a direct question about whether the law should be changed.

In response to a similar question by Sen. McCain, Adm. Mullen said, “I fundamentally, sir, think it’s an incredibly bad precedent to ask them to essentially vote on a policy.”

“This is not voting, sir,” McCain told Mullen. “You’re asking their views.”

Mullen then said he disagreed with the idea of asking military members for their views on the policy that bans gays from openly serving in the military.