One would think the chain of command begins with the Commander-in-Chief. Is Conway issuing a direct challenge to President Obama and Secretary Gates like Army Lt. Gen. Benjamin Mixon?
Conway said he would not ask Marines to bunk with gays. What if Conway were ordered, per Obama's stated intent to end the ban on gays serving openly?
The Marine Corps' top officer said March 25 that even if the ban on openly-serving gays in the services is lifted, he would draw the line at forcing heterosexual Marines to bunk with gays on base.
"We want to continue [two-person rooms], but I would not ask our Marines to live with someone who is homosexual if we can possibly avoid it," Marine Commandant Gen. James Conway told Military.com during an exclusive interview at the Pentagon. "And to me that means we have to build BEQs [bachelor enlisted quarters] and have single rooms."
Conway's comments came the same day that Defense Secretary Robert Gates reprimanded the Army's Pacific commander for publicly exhorting servicemembers and civilians to write to Congress to oppose repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Army Lt. Gen. Benjamin Mixon made his views known in a letter published in Stars and Stripes on March 8.
Listen to Gen. Conway’s Exclusive Comments on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell:
"If those of us who are in favor of retaining the current policy do not speak up, there is no chance to retain the current policy," Mixon said in his letter.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said Mixon should consider resigning over the comments, which fly in the face of President Obama's stated intent to end the ban on gays serving openly. Mullen is an advocate of repeal.
Also on March 25, Pentagon chief Robert Gates announced new guidelines intended to make it more difficult to boot someone from the service under DADT, including elevating the grade of officers able to separate gay servicemembers to flag and general officers only. Previously, O-6s could separate members determined to have committed homosexual conduct, according to a Defense Department statement.
Conway is already on the record opposing repeal of the current law, but his comments to Military.com fall far short of Mixon's call for petitioning Congress. Conway said that if the law is changed, the Corps will have to find ways to mitigate the disruption he believes would ensue. Billeting will represent one of the problems, he believes.
"In this case, I would want to reserve the right of a Marine that thinks he or she wouldn't want to [share a room with a homosexual]. And again that's the overwhelming … number of people that say that they wouldn't like to do so." Conway said the Corps billets two-to-a-room -- unique today among the services -- because it believes it's good for unit cohesion. But if a gay Marine sharing a room with a straight one has the opposite effect, the Corps will adopt the single-room standard of the other services.
Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness said the question is whether the military, without a ban on gays serving openly, will opt for mixing gays and heterosexual troops in the same facilities or have "separate but equal" facilities.
"That's what [Conway] seems to be advocating here," she said. This is something the working group established by Gates to look at repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell should address up front, Donnelly said.
"I think that, in itself, is why Congress will vote to retain the law and not repeal it," she said.
Larry Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, said concerns such as those voiced by Conway have not been borne out by services that have already lifted bans on gays serving openly.
"We went into the British and French experience and looked at separate facilities and separate showers, and they don't have a problem," Korb told Military.com. "They've not changed their policies from before."
Conway said he expects the working group established by Gates to look at repealing DADT will provide the services "with more data than ever before about how our people think and what the impact of the change might be." But after conducting numerous town hall-style meetings around the Corps with Sgt. Maj. of the Marine Corps Carlton Kent, Conway believes most Marines have real concerns about gays serving openly.
He said they routinely ask the Marines three questions: Do they believe repealing Don't Ask will adversely impact good order and discipline? Will repeal have an adverse impact on unit cohesion? And would they be willing to share a room with a Marine who has declared himself or herself a homosexual?
"An overwhelming number of Marines have significant concerns about those issues," Conway said. "If perception is reality, we just think our Corps would not want to see a change."
Photo by Marine Cpl. Erin Kirk-Cuomo.