SAN DIEGO — The new commandant of the U.S. Marines Corps said Saturday that now is the wrong time to overturn the "don't ask, don't tell" policy prohibiting gays from openly serving in the military, as U.S. troops remain in the thick of war in Afghanistan.
"There's risk involved; I'm trying to determine how to measure that risk," Gen. James Amos said. "This is not a social thing. This is combat effectiveness. That's what the country pays its Marines to do."
Last month, the Pentagon was forced to lift its ban on openly serving gays for eight days after a federal judge in California ordered the military to do so. The Justice Department has appealed, and a federal appeals court granted a temporary stay of the injunction.
Amos said the policy's repeal may have unique consequences for the Marines, which is exempt from a Defense Department rule for troops to have private living quarters except at basic training or officer candidate schools. The Marines puts two people in each room to promote a sense of unity.
"There is 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 of one another and sharing death, fear and loss of brothers," he said. "I don't know what the effect of that will be on cohesion. I mean, that's what we're looking at. It's unit cohesion, it's combat effectiveness."
Amos, who began his assignment last month, said he was reviewing preliminary findings of an internal Pentagon survey of the policy that was sent out to about 400,000 troops and another 150,000 family members. He will make recommendations to Defense Secretary Robert Gates later this month.
Amos declined to comment on the survey results, though portions have been leaked to reporters. Most troops and their families think the policy could be done away with, according to officials familiar with its findings who spoke on condition of anonymity because the results had not been released.
Amos said his top priority was success in Afghanistan – no matter how many people or how much equipment is required – and that he didn't expect any pullback in Marine forces over the next year.
President Barack Obama wants to start to reduce the number of U.S. troops in July, if conditions on the ground allow.
Amos said the U.S. effort is showing progress, pointing to improved security in the Nawa district, but that more work lies ahead in allowing the Afghan army and police to gain control of the country.
"The Marine Corps will stay the way it is (in Afghanistan) right now for probably at least the next year," he said.
He said he expects the Marines to shrink from its current size of 202,000 after leaving Afghanistan, but that "we need (the current numbers) now."
Amos, 63, spoke with reporters in a wide-ranging interview during a Southern California visit to mark the Marines' 235th birthday. He addressed other subjects:
_ A living Marine who served in Afghanistan has been recommended for a Medal of Honor. The Marine Corps has had only one Medal of Honor recipient, stirring controversy due to its heavy fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Amos' predecessor, Gen. James Conway, made the recommendation last month to the secretary of the Navy, and it must eventually be approved by Obama. Amos said a report on the Marine's actions brought tears to his eyes.
_ The fate of the amphibious Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle should be known in January or February. Gates, who is scrutinizing military spending in a search for roughly $10 billion in annual savings, has expressed doubts about a $13.2 billion plan for the Marines to buy large number of vehicles starting in 2012.
_ The number of suicides in the Marines this year is "markedly below" the same period last year. In 2009, the Marines had 52 suicides, the highest rate of any branch.
"I don't want anyone to walk out of here and say we've turned the corner and the Marine Corps has figured it out," he said. "That is not the case. This is hard."