Washington - The top uniformed leaders of the Air Force, Army and Marine Corps warned Congress on Friday that repealing "don't ask, don't tell" now would hurt the military's ability to fight the war in Afghanistan.
In often-dramatic terms, the service chiefs put themselves squarely opposed to their civilian bosses on one of President Barack Obama's top legislative priorities. The testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee was likely to bolster congressional opposition to the change.
"I cannot reconcile, nor turn my back, on the negative perceptions held by our Marines who are most engaged in the hard work of day-to-day operations in Afghanistan," Marine commandant Gen. James Amos said, citing a Pentagon survey that found 58 percent of Marines and 48 percent of Army respondents think lifting the ban would have negative consequences.
"Successfully integrating gays and lesbians into small Marine combat units has strong potential for disruption and will no doubt divert leadership attention away from an almost singular focus of preparing units for combat," Amos said.
Gen. George W. Casey, the chief of staff of the Army, and Gen. Norman Schwarz, Air Force chief of staff, agreed.
"Implementation of the repeal of 'don't ask don't tell' would be a major cultural and policy change in the middle of a war," Casey said. "It would be implemented by a force and leaders that are already stretched by the cumulative impacts of almost a decade at war."
Said Schwartz, "It is difficult for me, as a member of the Joint Chiefs, to recommend placing any additional discretionary demands on our leadership cadres in Afghanistan at this particularly challenging time." He recommended that any change not take effect until 2012.
Republican opponents of repeal said the Joint Chiefs' testimony confirmed their argument that lifting the ban would have negative consequences for the military.
"I will not agree to have this bill go forward, and neither will, I believe, 41 of my colleagues, either, because our economy is in the tank," said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee and the leading opponent of an immediate repeal. "Our economy is in the tank, and the American people want that issue addressed. ... So to somehow believe that this is some kind of compelling issue at a time we're in two wars ... is obviously not something that we shouldn't be exercising a rush to judgment."
Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said he wonders if service members will ever be ready to accept openly gay colleagues. He cited comments by a Marine lieutenant who worried that gays and lesbians would damage cohesiveness of Marine units.
"I can't imagine that that situation is going to be that different in 2012 for that Marine lieutenant or in 2013," Wicker said. "I wonder if 2012 or 2013 is going to make that lieutenant or that type of lieutenant feel better about it."
Even the heads of the Navy and Coast Guard, who said they favored repealing the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military, warned that the change must be undertaken cautiously.
Of special concern, said Adm. Gary Roughhead, the chief of naval operations, were the 24 percent of sailors who told Pentagon surveyors they were worried about sleeping and showering facilities aboard ships and submarines.
"I believe these concerns can be effectively mitigated through leadership, effective communications, training and education, and clear and concise standards of conduct," he said.
Nonetheless, the drive for repeal got a boost Friday when Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., announced that he supports repeal, joining fellow Republican Sen. Sue Collins of Maine.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent and an Armed Services Committee member, said that there are enough votes to approve repeal. But that could be moot, as Senate Republicans have vowed to filibuster anything in the closing lame-duck session that doesn't involve tax cuts or the budget.
Friday's testimony was not the first time the service chiefs have stated their reservations about repealing "don't ask, don't tell," the 17-year-old law that requires gays and lesbians in the military not to divulge their sexual orientation and that subjects them to possible expulsion if it becomes known that they are homosexual.
But it provided a dramatic counterpoint to the appearance before the same committee Thursday by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who argued that 70 percent of the 115,000 service members surveyed expected no negative impact from repealing "don't ask, don't tell," and that education programs and experience would overcome the reservations of the rest.
The service chiefs did agree with one point Gates made Thursday, however: That if the law is to change, it would be better for Congress to do it than for it to be overturned by the courts.
"My greatest concern, should the law change through the judicial process, is the (Defense) Department could lose the ability to transition in a way that facilitates managed implementation," said Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.