In a newspaper interview Monday, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, likened homosexual acts to adultery and said the military should not condone it by allowing gays to serve openly in the armed forces.
In a statement Tuesday, he said he should have focused more in the interview on the Defense Department policy about gays — and "less on my personal moral views."
That didn't sit well with gay veterans like Eric Alva, who was visited by his Commander in Chief after losing a leg in Iraq, CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reports.
"I think it was an insensitive and disrespectful remark to the thousands of men and women who are currently serving in the armed forces actually following the guidelines of 'don't ask, don't tell,' where they don't express their open orientation because they're not allowed to," Alva said.
No one knows how many gays are quietly serving in uniform, although one unofficial estimate puts it at 65,000, Martin reports. Whatever the number, Brian Fricke was one of them. He's a Marine who served nine months in al Anbar.
"He's saying you can still serve and die for your country, but don't tell if you're gay, because then you're dishonorable; you're immoral," Fricke said.
Pace did not offer an apology, something that had been demanded by gay rights groups.
"It's bad enough that he thinks that. It's even worse that he would be foolish enough to say that publicly," Arlene Isaacsen of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus told CBS Radio station WBZ-AM. "It is crass prejudice, crass bigotry and brazen ignorance, and it's disgraceful to think that someone in his position would think in these terms."
"General Pace's comments are outrageous, insensitive and disrespectful to the 65,000 lesbian and gay troops now serving in our armed forces," the advocacy group Servicemembers Legal Defense Network said in a statement on its Web site.
The group, which has represented some of the thousands dismissed from the military for their sexual orientation, demanded an apology.
In an interview Monday with the Chicago Tribune, Pace said he supports the policy, which became law in 1994 and prohibits commanders from asking about a person's sexual orientation.
"I believe homosexual acts between two individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts," Pace said in the audio recording of the interview posted on the Tribune's Web site. "I do not believe that the armed forces of the United States are well served by saying through our policies that it's OK to be immoral in any way."
Pace's senior staff members said earlier that the general was expressing his personal opinion and did not intend to apologize. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to speak on the record.
CBS' Susan Roberts reports that the White House agrees that Pace's comments were personal — and that it probably would have been best if he kept them to himself.
Rep. Martin Meehan, who has introduced legislation to repeal the current policy, criticized Pace's comments.