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Marines briefed matter-of-factly on 'don't ask, don't tell' repeal

'I want to be clear.... We will step out smartly to faithfully implement this new law,' Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos tells his troops via video. Sessions are being held at bases worldwide.

May 01, 2011|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
  • Col. Rudolph Janiczek, a battalion commander, briefs his Marines in a chapel at Camp Pendleton.
Col. Rudolph Janiczek, a battalion commander, briefs his Marines in a chapel… (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Camp Pendleton — The presentation was direct, even matter-of-fact, giving no hint of the large-scale cultural shift that the new policy represents — or of the passionate debate it provoked among politicians, religious leaders and other civilians.

There is a new policy, the young-looking colonel told 50-plus enlisted Marines sitting in the pews of an aging chapel on this sprawling base.

You will follow the policy, he said in a calm tone. If you have trouble with the policy, please see your sergeant or chaplain.

"The leadership will try to work with you and get you through it," he said.

And with that, this group of Marines from the headquarters battalion, 1st Marine Division, had been briefed last week on a new law that will allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the U.S. military.

Using a 30-minute slide show approved by Marine brass, Col. Rudolph Janiczek, the battalion commander, walked his Marines through what would change and what would not.

"I'm not here to change your belief system; that's not what this is about," Janiczek said. "You're free to be who you are. But when you begin to infringe on the rights of other Marines, that's the limit."

Similar briefing sessions are occurring at military bases throughout the U.S. and at bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Only after such sessions are completed will the new law go into effect — probably in late fall.

Recruits will no longer be asked about their sexual orientation. Being seen drinking in a gay bar off base or participating in a same-sex embrace will no longer be grounds for being booted out of the service.

Gays and lesbians will no longer have to hide their sexual orientation or pretend they are straight. If they believe they are being denied promotions or assignments because of their sexual orientation, there will be an appeal procedure.

But there will be no separate barracks for gay Marines. And there will be no "co-location" policy — the military ensuring, as it does for those who are married, that couples get assigned to same base or at least bases near each other — for same-sex couples.

Also, same-sex couples will have to obey the same rules as straight couples: no hand-holding on base, no mushy physical displays of affection in public, even when off base and wearing civilian clothing.

Same-sex partners will not be eligible to live in family housing or to receive dependent health benefits, because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman. The zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment remains in effect.

During the debate in Congress, polls showed that rank-and-file Marines were less accepting of the proposed change than their counterparts in other services.

Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos warned that it could be a dangerous "diversion." He proposed that any change be delayed until the military was no longer fighting two wars. His predecessor, Gen. James Conway, made a similar plea to Congress.

But if Amos was the last of the service chiefs to accept the idea, he may have been the first to pledge support for the change once the commander-in-chief signed the legislation in late December.

In January, the Marines released a video of Amos talking to his Marines.

The slide show is preceded by that same video of Amos and Sgt. Maj. Carlton Kent — the Marine Corps' top enlisted man — speaking directly to the camera in a no-nonsense manner.

"I want to be clear to all Marines," Amos says. "We will step out smartly to faithfully implement this new law. It is important that we value the diversity of background, culture and skills that all Marines bring to the service of our nation. As we implement repeal, I want leaders at all levels to emphasize the importance of maintaining dignity and respect for one another."

None of the comments by Amos or Kent suggest acknowledgment that gays and lesbians have long served in the Marine Corps. Nor are the words "gay," "lesbian" or "homosexual" used.

Still, Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center at the Williams Institute at UCLA, called Amos' comment a "historically important and very powerful statement about diversity and combat effectiveness."

Belkin, whose center is engaged in research involving gender, sexuality and the military, said he was pleased that the Marines were dealing with the impending end of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy in a low-key manner.

"If you treat this is as a big, complicated problem, then you open yourself up to big, complicated problems," he said.

And the lack of acknowledgement that gays and lesbians already serve? "You don't need general officers making gay-rights speeches," he said.

Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Washington-based Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said he too was glad the military was dealing with the new policy in a "routine, even boring" manner.

"I think it's a plus that 'don't ask, don't tell' repeal is being rolled out in the same manner as other policy changes," said Sarvis, who served in the Army in the 1960s.

Sarvis said he believed that, given Amos' earlier comments, the commandant "felt the need to step out ahead of his counterparts" in pledging to implement the change.

Back at the Camp Pendleton briefing session, Marines listened intently. Few questions were asked.

"Things like this can be seen as a big issue, but I frankly don't think it is," said Janiczek, a 23-year veteran of the Marine Corps. "We'll probably see a case or two [of problems] but not en masse. I think we're better than that."

Lance Cpl. Armando Coronado, 22, of Phoenix said he did not have any problems with serving with gays. Coronado said he had a gay family member.

"Marines follow orders," he said. "This is not going to be a big deal."

tony.perry@latimes.com

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