Marine Commandant Discusses Challenges He's Faced

Gen. James Amos assumed the duties of commandant of the Marines about one year ago. Since then, the military has changed its policy to allow for the enlistment of openly gay troops and faces large budget cuts, while still maintaining forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Melissa Block speaks with Amos about the Marines.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block.

Now, a conversation with General James Amos who became Commandant of the Marine Corps one year ago. We're talking at a time of great budget uncertainty. The Pentagon has agreed to cut $480 billion over about the next 10 years. And the threat looms of a total cut of a trillion dollars, if the congressional supercommittee fails to reach a deal. General Amos, thanks for coming in.

General JAMES AMOS: You're more than welcome. I'm glad to be here.

BLOCK: I want to ask you before we get to those budget questions. First, your thoughts today on the death of Moammar Gadhafi and the U.S. military's role in bringing down his regime.

AMOS: You know, I am pretty proud of NATO. I'm pretty proud of the whole military operation that, you know, I think it was done the right way. I'm proud of our country's participation in it. And I feel good about the fact that the regime was taken down.

BLOCK: Let's move on to the budget questions that are pending here. You sent a rather lengthy letter to the Defense Secretary Leon Panetta about a month ago, making the case for the Marine Corps in a time of, what you called, considerable fiscal austerity. And the message to Secretary Panetta seemed to be, as you're slicing an ever small, an ever shrinking pie, protect us, protect the Marines. I wonder if this becomes a battle essentially among the service branches of who is most worthy. And if that is the battle, what's the case from the Marines?

AMOS: Well, I think in anybody budget crisis - when you've got multiple services - in some cases, it can relegate into roles or missions. In other words, what's the role of this service, the mission of this service? I think it can happen that way. And if you're not careful, it can break out probably the worst of behavior.

So, what I was really trying to say is that as we come down and reduce capabilities and capacity in our nation, one of the ways that you can - and you assume a level of risk when you do that. You know, we're going from what we are down to something less. When that happens, how do you mitigate the risk?

And what I offered in my letter was the Marine Corps is at risk mitigation force. In other words, we are forward deployed. We are forward engagementships(ph), and we're ready to go.

BLOCK: When you talk about the worst behavior that these sort of turf battles and budget battles can bring out, what are you most afraid of? What are you worried about?

AMOS: No, I think - actually I haven't seen that kind of behavior. But I'm just saying in the past, you know, budget battles tend to kind of break out or incentivize bad behavior. I haven't seen that and I don't anticipate that among the chiefs or the department. So, I'm an optimistic guy. We're working well together right now. But we're trying to figure out how you cut Solomon's baby and that's really where we are today. You know, how many pieces do you cut Solomon's baby into?

BLOCK: I want to move on, general, and this is the question of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell. The repeal of that policy went into effect last month. And among the service commanders, you were really the strongest voice opposing the repeal of that. I want to listen to some of your testimony from last December before Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

AMOS: The unique fabric, that tightly woven fabric of that bonded unit, heavily engaged, tightly focused, I think the potential for damage is there.

BLOCK: Potential for damage, you were talking about unit cohesion. What was your fear? What were you worried about happening on Don't Ask, Don't Tell?

AMOS: You know, when I testified and I took the response from the Marines. You know, we sent a survey out and I think there was close to 40,000 Marines that answered the survey - just like much of the other services did. The Marines came back a little bit more vehemently, more strident opposed to this...

BLOCK: Opposed to repeal.

AMOS: Opposed to repeal. So the commandant, you know, I couldn't ignore that. I mean, I'm their - I'm representing the 202,000 Marines who are out there. So, when I came in and said what I did, I was echoing what I was reading in the results of the survey.

BLOCK: How do you explain that? Why do you think the Marine Corps servicemembers, whom you heard from and officers, were more opposed, were more vehement, as you say? What is it about the Marine Corps culture, if there is something?

AMOS: Well, first of all, I want to be clear that we're not a bunch of cavemen. And we're actually a pretty wonderful organization. And I think it's a sense of that warrior ethos that has been bred in 236 years of, you know, fighting different battles for our nation. And I think that sense of the young men, I think that's what they kind of refer back to, when they say this probably doesn't fit our culture.

BLOCK: But, of course, the point would be that there are gay servicemembers who have always been serving in the Marine Corps. It's a question of openness. And as the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen said, it's a question of integrity of who we are.

AMOS: Yeah. Yeah. And I'll tell you, I think I'm very pleased now that, you know, once the law - if you remember when I testified in that same thing, I was asked the question: Well, General Amos, what happens if the law changes. And I said well, that's easy. You know, there's no more law-abiding service than the United States Marine Corps. We'll get behind it and we did and we have. And I am very proud of the Marines' performance since the repeal.

BLOCK: Our Pentagon correspondent Rachel Martin recently spoke with the Marine Corps major named Darrel Choat, who recently came out as gay. And he told her that he is going to be bringing a date to the Marine Corps ball next month in November. Let's take a listen to Major Choat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

Major DARREL CHOAT: My service is just as valid as anyone else's. My civil rights are just as valid as anyone else's. Why should I not? What do I have to be ashamed of or afraid of? I'm serving my country and I'm serving honorably. What do I have to be ashamed of?

BLOCK: General Amos, the Marine Corps ball, I gather, is one of the Marines most cherished traditions. How comfortable are you with the idea of a gay couple showing up at the ball?

AMOS: I'm fine with it. I'm fine with it and I expect it to happen. I expect it to happen across the Marine Corps. And I mean that's just - that's part of the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. I mean, that's part of it. You can't go halfway. You can't say we're going to repeal it and you can now become public, but I'm going to restrict your behavior. We're not going to business that way.

BLOCK: General Amos, I have read that you keep photographs of wounded Marines on your desk. Is that true?

AMOS: I have some of them. Yes, I do.

BLOCK: And why is that?

AMOS: I don't want to ever lose track of the cost of the war. The currency of the 10 years of fighting are the young 18- to 22-year-old young men and women, predominately young men. And some of them have had some pretty horrific wounds. Some I've watched heal and then I've been there when we buried them. So, I don't want to ever forget that.

BLOCK: General Amos, thank you for coming in.

AMOS: You're welcome. It's good to be here.

BLOCK: General James Amos is commandant of the Marine Corps.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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