WASHINGTON -- As many as 95 percent of Marines would be uncomfortable serving alongside openly gay troops, the retiring commandant of the Marine Corps told Fox News in an exclusive interview.
Gen. James Conway told Fox News' Jennifer Griffin that a majority of his men and women think a repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy barring gays from serving openly will be problematic, so he has to believe that, too.
"When we take a survey of our Marines, by and large, they say that they are concerned that it will cause potential problems with regard to their order and discipline -- that it will impact their sense of unit cohesion," Conway said.
Gen. Conway was the first member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to speak out against a repeal earlier this year after Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen publicly endorsed President Obama's desire to change the law.
Conway plans to retire Oct. 22 after 40 years of service with the Marines. He's only the second Marines chief ever to serve his entire tenure as commandant during wartime.
And wartime, he said, is "probably not the time" to change the military's policy on gays.
Right now, there are 20,000 Marines serving in Afghanistan. Conway told Fox he "wouldn't hazard a guess" as to how many are gay, but he think it's a small percentage, in the "low single digits."
Conway says these few gays don't cause a problem now because their homosexuality is not known publicly. But he said if their sexuality does become public, "90 to 95 percent of the Marines" he has informally surveyed are concerned about the consequences. Conway cited impromptu surveys he has conducted by a "show of hands" among Marines at town hall style meetings.
Late Thursday, Obama's Justice Department requested that California U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips allow the military to continue enforcing the gay ban during the appeal of her landmark ruling Tuesday, which declared the law unconstitutional.
The move amounted to an admission from the White House that they would not let this policy be legislated in the courts, that it had to be decided by Congress. Congress has failed once already this year to pass a change the law, even with a majority of Democrats in both houses and with public opinion polls that slant heavily toward a repeal.
Gen. Conway agrees that only the Congress should have that ability. "I think that the Congress represents the will of the people," he said. "And we are a nation of laws. The military abides by the laws. And I think we would be much more comfortable, if it's going to change, it comes as a result of the change to the law, not an independent judicial determination in a district somewhere in California."
Meanwhile the military finds itself in the awkward position of having to abide by an injunction that calls on the government "immediately to suspend or discontinue any investigation or discharge, separation or other proceeding that may have been commenced under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
Conway says this unfortunately creates "an element of uncertainty" among commanders in the field about how they should handle existing cases.