I am a soldier. I am a gay man. I believe there is no greater honor than to serve in uniform. I cannot tell my name.
And I’m exhausted.
As the country slowly—very slowly—approaches a turning point in the debate over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” I want to offer some perspective on what it is like to be a soldier under this policy. On how I, the commander of a unit in the United States military, balance the tasks of soldiering, leading soldiers, and watching over my shoulder, constantly, lest I reveal my true self and risk my career. And, finally, on why DADT not only serves to drain some of the military’s best talent—see what just happened to the ninth-ranked cadet at West Point—but also erodes several of the most valuable lessons service has taught me.
First, it is important to understand that soldiering means giving up comfort, luxuries, personal time, and family experiences. It means wearing gear one would rather not in the heat of the desert, or laying on a cold ground, shivering, while keeping watch during a training exercise. It means looking at your fellow soldier and muttering those ubiquitous words: “this sucks.”
As soldiers, though, we are constantly reminded to “embrace the suck”—that is, to revel in the challenge. The reward for this is great. To stand shoulder-to-shoulder in uniform with those who believe this is honorable and to count your company among soldiers is a sentiment not easily expressed in words. The “don’t tell” directive is for me an accepted part of the suck.
Second, soldiers share everything with each other. We share our hopes and fears, and we learn things about one another we would rather not. Those who train and deploy together often come to know one another so well that we can identify a colleague simply by the sounds his footsteps make when he walks into a room. There is something which compels you to open up to those with whom you serve. It often helps to talk about the family back home, the missed graduations, birthdays, holidays. And there are mementos we share with our fellow soldiers to help us along—often a picture hung inside a wall locker, a note kept in a chest pocket, a necklace with the name of a son or daughter, a tattoo, some way to honor those we love. When the mission has become too much, we remember these things. We share. We laugh.
Not for the gay soldier. I don’t have a picture of my partner posted anywhere in my personal items. I don’t mention his name. He doesn’t participate in family events, or in the life of the community, though he would add so much value. He sees me off, he shares in the hardship, in the long goodbyes, and endures a relationship made more difficult by distance, and time away. Even as I prepare for deployment, I am saddened that he won’t see me off when it’s time to say goodbye, surrounded by all my soldiers’ families. Rather our goodbye will be something only we share. When my fellow soldiers ask where my family is, I will simply make some excuse, or claim to be a single guy offering an “eh, don’t worry about me.”
As a gay soldier, I keep the personal to myself, revealing only what I can; enough to open up ever so slightly to my fellow soldiers to feel connected, but guarded enough that I don’t jeopardize my career. My partner becomes a “roommate” or a friend. So when a friend in the chow hall asked me the other day how my roommate was doing, I hesitated at first, unsure of how best to answer the question. Hopefully he never comes to my home; there is only one bedroom. Where does the “roommate” go?
Of course I can’t tell him. If military culture is supposed to encourage sharing and camaraderie among its members, then my enforced silence achieves quite the opposite.
Third, soldiers are some of the funniest people I have ever met. Humor is just how we express ourselves. With so many more significant things happening around us, we don’t really have a choice. So when I think about how soldiers would respond should this policy change, I cannot help but think that many soldiers (though clearly not all) would simply shrug it off and welcome the gay soldier with a joke. Why? Because for every unit in which I have served, there has been a “Shrek,” the large soldier who needs to drop a few pounds. I have also encountered a “Speedy Gonzalez,” a Latino soldier who was crazy fast, and a “Helmet,” a cadet with an exceptionally large noggin. Each did his job competently nonetheless. The unit embraced him, but noted the way in which he was different. This teasing may seem mean-spirited, but it’s not; it’s a means of communicating, a way for fellow soldiers to remind one another “I know everything about you, yet I have your back.”
I know there have been gay soldiers who have served in my unit. For at least one, he too had a nickname. It wasn’t “Shrek”; he was given his own badge—something like “Twinkle Boots.” I think everyone knew he was gay. There were jokes, but they never seemed cruel or hateful. And I’m sure some soldiers may have been uncomfortable, but I never saw or experienced that aspect of it. He was just another soldier, another member of the team. In fact, I remember overhearing one of our leaders talking about this soldier’s partner and mentioning that he was a “really nice guy.”
I never asked the soldier. He never told.
Right now, I feel as if I’m in a state of limbo. Normally people who are personally and professionally affected by a law have a right to stand against it publicly—to speak out, to petition government, to organize and try to influence political decision-makers. But DADT is the one policy that prevents the affected from lobbying openly against it. It mandates my silence.
At the very least, why can’t I be free to live my personal life the way that fulfills me? When I return home from a long training event, sometimes I simply want to put on my civvies, step outside with my partner, hand-in-hand, and walk through the neighborhood. Perhaps go for ice cream. I don’t. I am forever on the lookout for my fellow soldiers who live in the same neighborhood and may see me going about the same business everyone else does, except that I happen to be with someone of the same gender. When we do go out, I am in a constant state of concern, reminding him not to stand so close or act too much like we enjoy each other’s company.
I often wonder when we’ll see moral leadership that can inspire America to move beyond its current thinking, fears, and inhibitions. It’s not as if Americans are unready for change. The number of active duty soldiers who oppose allowing gay soldiers to serve openly drops precipitously each year. And recent polls show that the majority of Americans support getting rid of the policy, especially given the fact that the nation is currently fighting two wars; a May 2010 CNN poll had 78 percent of respondents supporting repeal.
And yet, here we are, waiting for President Obama’s promises of repeal to materialize. The reasons for this delay are plain to see. Democrats are staring down a disastrous set of midterm elections, and then, very shortly after that, the re-election starts. Moreover, the military brass clearly isn’t eager for a change; how else to explain its ordering up yet another time-eating survey on the impact of DADT? I’m also not blind to the fact that a not insignificant number of straight soldiers will feel awkward and uncomfortable around gay soldiers at first, especially in showers and barracks where many fear living with an openly gay person. It will take time for people—in the service and out—to realize that professionalism and service always prevail in the military. Just look at how we handled the integration of African Americans and Jews into our ranks.
Indeed, if soldiering is about anything, it’s about facing fear. We train to do that which doesn’t come naturally. To charge into gunfire when every fiber of one’s being says to “run!” We do this in the name of preserving the country’s core values of openness and human dignity. We do this because we seek to make freedom more than a hollow word. This is what I’ve learned in the military and what I love about it most.