Report: Impact Of 'Don't Ask' Will Be Minimal

The Pentagon has been surveying troops to judge how the force might manage if it allows gays to serve openly in the military. A report today suggests that most service members do NOT have real problems serving alongside homosexuals. Melissa Block talks with NPR's Tom Bowman, who is currently with Marines in Afghanistan, about his view from the field on "don't ask, don't tell."

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Now to the American military and how members of the armed services might react if gays are allowed to serve openly. The Pentagon has been studying the question for months. It surveyed hundreds of thousands of troops.

A report in the Washington Post today says the study found the vast majority of the force thinks that the effect of repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell would be positive, mixed or nonexistent. One of the key issues is how troops in the field might react. And we have reached our reporter in the field: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, who is with the Marines in Helmand province in Afghanistan.

Tom, what can you tell us generally about what the survey found?

TOM BOWMAN: Well, I talked to some people involved in this study, Melissa, some time back - a couple of months back. And we can confirm the outlines of what the Washington Post reported. Now, one thing that jumped out at those who did the study was how supportive military families were of repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell. That really surprised them.

And what they believe is that since a lot of families these days live away from the posts, away from military bases in the community, both in the United States and overseas, that it's not that unusual to see gay couples or to have gay friends. So that's one thing that surprised them.

Another thing is that the services that tend to have larger numbers of women -the Coast Guard, for example - tend to be more supportive of repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell and allowing gays to serve openly. And that's because women tend to support gays serving more so than men.

And what I'm also hearing is that a large part of Marines Corps, which has the lowest number of women, they are opposed to ending Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

BLOCK: Tom, just this week we heard from the new commandant of the Marines, who said that he also opposed changing the law on gays serving openly in the military.

BOWMAN: That's right. General James Amos´┐Żwas talking to reporters. And he said, quote, "There's nothing more intimate than young men and young women - and when you talk of infantry, we're talking our young men laying out, sleeping alongside one another, sharing death, fear, and loss of brothers." And he says, I don't know what the effect this will have, you know, allowing gays to serve openly, on unit cohesion. He said that's what we're looking at. It's unit cohesion. It's combat effectiveness.

Now, this is very important, because it affects how Marines operate in the field. And back in the United States - back at their base - they generally have Marines rooming by twos to build that unit cohesion. And out in the field they're sleeping together in tents sometimes in combat outposts.

And they're just worried - some of the Marines - that in close proximity with, you know, a great deal of showering together and so forth, they're basically worried about the effect of having gays serving with heterosexuals.

BLOCK: But, Tom, of course, there are gays serving with heterosexuals right now. It's just that they're not open about it.

BOWMAN: No. I think that's right. They're not open about it. We're here with the Marines out here in Helmond province. And we spent a lot of time with them here last year as well. And their answers about Don't Ask, Don't Tell really run the gamut. Some people don't care. They say, you know, people are talking too much about it. Others are vehemently opposed to it. They say, well, I don't want someone openly gay sleeping in my tent. And still others are saying, listen, I think it's the right thing to do as well.

We talked to one Marine officer tonight who said, My close friend in the Marine Corps, his brother is gay. And I have no problem with gays serving openly in the military. And he said, I have known people that did serve in the military that have since left the military and have since acknowledged that they're gay.

BLOCK: Okay. That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman with the Marines in Helmand province in Afghanistan.

Tom, thank you very much.

BOWMAN: Thanks, Melissa.

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