WASHINGTON -- More than 250,000 U.S. troops may leave the military earlier than they had planned if the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy is reversed, Sen. John McCain said Thursday, basing his data on a new Pentagon report.
"The numbers are alarming," he said.
The Pentagon report on the issue, released Nov. 30, found that 12.6 percent of military members who were surveyed said they would leave sooner than they had planned if Congress overturns the policy and homosexuals are allowed to serve openly. An additional 11.1 percent said they would consider leaving sooner.
McCain, R.-Ariz., made his comments during a Dec. 2 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing where Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen testified.
"If 12.6 percent of the military left earlier, that translates into 264,600 men and women who would leave the military earlier than they had planned," McCain said before asking Gates, "Do you think that's a good idea to replace 265,000 troops across the force in a time of war, that we should be undertaking that challenge at this time?"
McCain supports Don't Ask, Don't Tell, while Gates opposes it.
"The experience of the British, the Canadians and some of the other [countries]," Gates said, "has been that in their surveys ... there were substantial numbers who said they would leave" if homosexuals were to serve openly, but far fewer ended up doing so. He later told another GOP senator, "If I believed that a quarter of a million would leave the military immediately if given the opportunity, I would certainly have second thoughts about this, but I don't believe that."
Supporters of Don't Ask, Don't Tell warn that its reversal would harm unit cohesion, effectiveness, privacy and religious liberty.
The hearing saw Democrats and Republicans pointing to data in the report each said supported their case. Gates and Mullen told senators the policy should be reversed, although senators likely will get a different view Friday when the four service chiefs testify. General Carter F. Ham, co-chair of the group who wrote the report, acknowledged that the report "is not reflective of the chiefs' views."
Instead of supporting a repeal, the report actually opposes one, McCain said.
"Of those surveyed, 30 percent of the total, 43 percent of the Marines, 48 percent of Army combat units and 58 percent of Marine combat units believe that a repeal of the law would have a negative or very negative impact on their units' ability to work together to get the job done," McCain said. "Furthermore, 67 percent of Marines and nearly 58 percent of Army soldiers in combat units believe that repeal of the law would have negative consequences on unit cohesion in a field environment or out at sea."
McCain added, "I remain concerned ... as demonstrated in this study that the closer we get to service members in combat, the more we encounter concerns about whether Don't Ask, Don't Tell should be repealed and what impact that would have on the ability of these units to perform their mission."
Gates said the report raises concerns, although he said he believes such problems can be overcome.
"I ... frankly share the view of the chiefs that the report's evaluation of risk -- and particularly in the combat arms -- is perhaps too sanguine," Gates said. "What I believe is that with proper time for preparation, for training ... I believe that those concerns can be mitigated."
McCain responded, "I couldn't disagree more. We send these young people into combat. We think they're mature enough to fight and die. I think they're mature enough to make a judgment on who they want to serve with and the impact on their battle effectiveness."
The report did not ask whether military personnel actually supported or opposed the policy, but it did acknowledge that among those who were interviewed in focus groups, on the Internet and at discussion groups, "the majority of views expressed were against repeal of the current policy."
More than 60 chaplains, including Southern Baptist chaplains, signed a letter to Obama and Gates earlier this year expressing concern that overturning Don't Ask, Don't Tell would result in the marginalizing of "deeply held" religious beliefs and could harm religious liberty. They warned that changing the policy could influence everything from what a chaplain can say in a sermon to what he can say in a counseling session. The fear is that chaplains who speak against homosexuality will have a discrimination complaint filed against them. Chaplains who preach through entire books of the Bible, the letter said, would "inevitably present religious teachings that identify homosexual behavior as immoral."
"Thus, while chaplains fulfill their duty to God to preach the doctrines of their faith, they would find themselves speaking words that are in unequivocal conflict with official policies," the letter said.