Sunday, November 28, 2010
The Few. The Proud. The ...
OCEANSIDE, Calif. — They are the few, the proud and perhaps the military's biggest opponents of lifting the ban on openly gay troops.
Most of those serving in America's armed forces have no strong objections to repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" law, according to a Pentagon survey of 400,000 active duty and reservists that is scheduled for release Tuesday.
But the survey found resistance to repealing the ban strongest among the Marines, according to The Washington Post. It's an attitude apparently shared by their top leader, Commandant Gen. James Amos, who has said that the government should not lift the ban in wartime.
The Senate is supposed to consider repeal during its lame duck session in December, with many legislators favoring changing the law to allow gays to serve openly. A few staunchly oppose it, however, and both sides are expected to cite the survey in arguing whether to move forward with repeal.
The Corps is the youngest, smallest and arguably the most tight-knit of the enlisted forces, with many of its roughly 200,000 members hailing from small towns and rural areas in the South.
Marines are unabashed about distinguishing themselves from the rest of the military, with a warrior ethos and a religious zeal for their branch of service that they liken to a brotherhood.
"We've never changed our motto. We've never changed our pitch to new recruits. We have hardly changed our formal uniforms in 235 years," said Marine Reserve Lt. Col. Paul Hackett, 48, who has been in the Corps for 25 years. "We are a religion unto ourselves, and we pride ourselves in that."
The Marine Corps traces its roots to an 18th century Philadelphia bar, Tun Tavern, where, according to legend, the first Colonial Marines were recruited in 1775 – setting the tone for troops who still boast they are the toughest, most aggressive fighters in the military.
Over the centuries they have remained faithful to their martial traditions, even in the face of sweeping societal change. The Marines Corps was among the last in the military to open its doors to women, forming the first female Corps in 1943, according to the Women's Memorial in Washington D.C.
But some things haven't changed. Marine recruiting commercials are still full of macho swagger that dare people to become one of "The Few. The Proud. The Marines."
Much has been said about the Marine "mystique," the almost cult-like bonds developed among a force known historically to have higher casualty rates because it is considered the "tip of the spear," or the first to respond to bloody conflicts. Marine officers say that kind of unit "cohesion" – fostered through close living quarters – can literally mean the difference between life and death when headed into battle.
Many Marines say they aren't bothered by the notion of serving with openly gay men and women. Gary Solis, a Marine combat veteran who teaches the laws of war at Georgetown University Law Center, says others have the misconception that openly gay Marines will not be as aggressive or "gung-ho" as their comrades in arms.
"Of course, we know none of that's true about homosexuals," Solis added. "There have always been homosexuals in the Marine Corps, but when you acknowledge it openly, that's a different thing. There are many Marines, particularly the older, more senior Marines, who don't want to see that image diluted."
That image is flaunted here in Oceanside, a coastal community bordering Camp Pendleton, where souped-up pick up trucks with Marine Corps stickers in the back windows rumble down the main street flanked by towering Palms.
The downtown is dotted with barber shops adorned with American flags advertising "military-style" cuts and dry cleaners filled with racks of freshly pressed uniforms.
Marines say they know there are gay troops in the Corps but they prefer that remain an unspoken fact on the battlefield.
Iraq veteran Miguel Jimenez, 37, a staff sergeant who left the Marine Corps in 2008, said he would have been uncomfortable having an openly gay man in the Marine unit he led. His Marines often spent the night in their armored vehicle, he said, changing their clothes and sleeping within inches of each other.
"I don't like that idea" of lifting the ban, said Jimenez, sitting in his truck with his pit bull, Angel, near Oceanside's Surf Museum and GI Joe's military apparel shop. "I think there would be alienation, maybe open hostility toward that guy."
Sgt. David Trentham said allowing gays to serve openly could become a distraction for units engaged in combat.
"I just think it would complicate things," said Trentham, 24, of Sevierville, Tenn. "If you have two homosexuals in a unit, they could have a relationship and if they broke it off, is that going to cause the mission to fail because they are having problems?"
Marine Corps Commandant Amos has expressed concern that the change could disrupt the cohesion of combat units where troops must put their lives in each other's hands.
"There is nothing more intimate than combat and I want to make that point crystal clear," Amos told reporters in San Diego recently. "There is nothing more intimate than young men and young women, and when you're talking infantry, we're talking our young men laying out, sleeping alongside of one another, and sharing death and fear and the loss of their brothers. So I don't know what the effect of that would be on unit cohesion."
Amos also pointed out that the Marine Corps has a policy of two Marines per room on base, unlike other military branches.
Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, a Marine corporal who was discharged in 2008 under the "don't ask, don't tell" law, said the Corps' demanding standards and the strong sense of brotherhood are what prompted him to join in the first place.
"My calling has always been service, and I wanted to go into the best of the branches, the one that showed the most pride, the most challenge," he said, adding that he wants to rejoin if and when the ban is lifted.
He said that Marine Corps officers can smooth the transition to gays serving openly through leadership.
"There's so much discipline that is instilled in our Marines that if they see the senior officers saying this is not acceptable then they are going to say this is not acceptable," Rodriguez-Kennedy said.
Marines say privately they know the policy is on its way out, adding that the older officers will take it harder than the younger ones who have grown up in a more open society.
But in the end, Lt. Col. Hackett says every good Marine follows orders, and "if that's what the president orders, I can tell you by God we're going to excel above and beyond the other services to make it happen and be damn good at it."
Associated Press writers Anne Flaherty in Washington and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.