U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Amos testifies on Capitol Hill in September. Amos, now the Marine Corps' top officer, told Congress earlier this month that "don't ask, don't tell" should remain the law of the land.
The Marines call themselves "The few. The proud." They are called a kick-down-the-door force. They are almost eager to live in the dirt and mud, exposed to enemy fire, for days or weeks at a time.
"We recruit a certain type of young American — pretty macho guy or gal that is willing to go fight and perhaps die for their country," says Gen. James Conway, who stepped down last month as the Marine Corps' top officer.
But Conway says there's one thing most Marines don't want to do: "We sometimes ask Marines what is their preference and I can tell you that an overwhelming majority would like not to be roomed with a person who is openly homosexual."
The Pentagon is scheduled to release a survey of service members and their families this week that gauges their views on repealing "don't ask, don't tell," the 1993 law that bars gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. And the Marine Corps, the service widely seen as the most tradition-bound, is leading in opposition to any change.
Rooming Marines by twos is how the corps builds camaraderie back in the United States and forges what it calls "unit cohesion." And that's at the center of Marine opposition to allowing gays to serve openly.
Conway's successor, Gen. James Amos, told Congress earlier this month that don't ask, don't tell should remain the law of the land — allowing gays to serve openly could harm combat effectiveness.
Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness says the Marine leadership is right to be concerned. "It would raise issues of sexuality and misconduct that do not exist right now," Donnelly says. "That is inherently disruptive and I think the Marines instinctively know that."
The Pentagon survey will reportedly show that about 40 percent of Marines are against gays serving openly, the highest among the services. That corresponds with private polls showing greater opposition among the Marines.
That doesn't surprise Brian Fricke, a former Marine sergeant who served in Iraq and worked on helicopters. "Traditionally, try and incorporate anything different, [like] females, [and] they look at that as weakening the force," he says.
Fricke says he thinks there are a lot of misconceptions among Marines. "They don't know that the Marine to their left and right is gay and they have served with Marines who have fought and fought well and died with them and done the exact same job."
Fricke himself is gay. He decided not to re-enlist. And it was while on active duty that he revealed his secret to his family — and his fellow Marines.
"Most of them that I served with don't really care because they know that I was a good Marine. I did my job and that's what important — can I get the mission accomplished?" he says. "I love the Marine Corps. I enjoyed being a Marine. I just wanted to do my job, be a Marine and be the best Marine I could be."
Out Of Sync With New Generation?
But senior Marines — one after another — have gone public and taken the lead against gays serving openly.
Marine Gen. Peter Pace, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a newspaper editorial board in 2007 that he supported don't ask, don't tell and called homosexuality immoral.
And earlier this year, retired Marine Gen. Jack Sheehan linked a massacre of Muslims in the Balkans in the 1990s to the fact that Dutch troops allowed gays to serve openly. He later apologized.
"We see a strong anti-homosexual position among the Marine Corps leadership," says Gary Solis, a law professor who served with the Marine Corps in Vietnam.
He says those leaders may be out of sync with the new generation they lead. "They were raised in a culture not shared by today's younger Marines, who have grown up in a society where homosexuality doesn't have the connotations that it had back in the '70s and '80s and '90s, when today's Marine Corps senior leadership came up," Solis says.
Those younger Marines appear to be more supportive of change.
Tammy Schultz, an openly gay professor who teaches national security at the Marine Corps War College, says she is encouraged that more than half the Marine Corps supports repealing don't ask, don't tell.
"Sixty percent of Marines actually don't think this is a big issue. And those numbers are better than what they were ever for desegregation, frankly," Schultz says, referring to the 1948 order that scrapped separate units for black servicemen and called for equal opportunity.
Schultz says another hallmark of the Marines is discipline. Should Congress repeal don't ask, don't tell, the Marines say they'll lead the way.