Sept. 21, 4:23 p.m. | Updated
Sept. 21, 4:23 p.m. | UpdatedThe Senate voted against taking up the annual Pentagon authorization bill, which included a provision allowing the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell policy” regarding gay soldiers. The vote was 56 to 43, with Democrats falling short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster and take up the bill.
Personal Stories From Service Members
Opponents of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gay people serving in the American military hope that they will move one step closer to repeal this week. The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, has indicated that the Senate would take up the annual Pentagon policy bill, which includes a provision that would allow the Defense Department to end the policy.
A judicial opinion issued earlier this month by Virginia A. Phillips, a federal judge in California, ruled that “don’t ask, don’t tell” is unconstitutional.
But the policy remains in force, 16 years after it was enacted.
Seven current and former members of the United States military – men and women, gay and lesbian – discuss their reasons for going into the services and why they have stayed in, despite all the difficulties, or why they left.
Four of the seven are still serving and have asked that their names not be published because it could mean an immediate end to their careers. The three who are no longer in the military write under their own names.
Here are their accounts, in their own words:
The author is a combat engineer lieutenant and West Point graduate. An airborne-qualified officer, she planned and executed numerous construction projects in Iraq, logging more than 40 combat patrols. She is currently preparing her unit for its next combat deployment, to Afghanistan.
“By my sophomore year I had come to the realization that I was a lesbian.”
— West Point graduate
The magnitude of the decision to attend West Point and ultimately serve as an Army officer had not yet hit me as a 17-year-old eagerly signing the paperwork that would forever change my life.
By my sophomore year I had come to the realization that I was a lesbian — quite a revelation on top of everything else I was dealing with as a young cadet. I had never fathomed having to choose between becoming an officer or compromising my personal integrity by having to serve in shame and silence because of who I am.
Personal Stories From Service Members
I had the choice to walk away from the academy with no commitment or obligation before my junior year, but I (and many other gay cadets) made the decision to stay and dedicate the next 10 years of my life serving in an Army that deliberately and openly discriminated against me because of my sexuality.
The popular adage at West Point among cadets and graduates is that we might have come for the wrong reasons, but we stayed for the right ones.
At some crucial moment, each service member realizes that he or she has volunteered for an organization with a mission far greater in scope and gravity than one’s self, and that from the second you are commissioned, you are, consciously or not, subjugating most all of your personal desires, comforts and your lifestyle to do whatever it takes to accomplish the mission.
Anyone in the Army can tell you: the Army isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle. And it’s a lifestyle that an estimated 60,000 lesbian and gay service members — currently serving in silence — continue to pursue despite blatant discrimination.
Along the way I have worked with numerous gay and lesbian noncommissioned officers, commissioned officers and soldiers who come from all walks of life.
The problems encountered are endless. How does a young gay N.C.O. live with his partner when he is forced to live in the barracks because the Army does not recognize his marriage?
How can a soldier receive emergency leave for a spouse who does not exist, according to the Army? How is it possible to incorporate your partner into family readiness groups while deployed?
At a fundamental level, the Army is built around the team, whether it’s a squad, platoon, or even a family readiness group. It’s not a job meant to be done alone. Yet any of these soldiers can tell you that life as a gay service member is a lonely and foreign endeavor in which the typical choice is between having a healthy relationship or family, or pursuing the career you love.
D.A.D.T. is a policy that must end. Open and honest service is always the right answer — not only for the gay and lesbian service members, but also for the Army and nation that we serve.
The author is temporarily medically retired from active duty in the Army. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant through an Army R.O.T.C. program where he graduated college with honors. He also received numerous Congressional nominations to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y. He is employed as a Department of the Army civilian. At the author’s request, his identity is not being released to protect his rights under “don’t ask don’t tell,” in the event that he is returned to active duty pending a medical re-evaluation. His views do not express an opinion or endorsement of the Army or the Department of Defense.
In a way, I have been writing this article for nearly two years now. My story is similar to countless others. I served in the United States military as an Army officer. I was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 2007. Fifteen months later, I left active duty. Indirectly, I was a casualty of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
No one ever asked, and I never told. So what happened?
“I played what I called the ‘pronoun game’, substituting the pronoun “he” with “she” whenever I discussed my relationship.”
— Retired second lieutenant, Army
At the time of my commissioning, the policy seemed reasonable. I was not completely comfortable with my sexuality. Over the following months, I slowly came to terms with my homosexuality, but I kept it a secret because I was ashamed of myself. Eventually, I began to tell my family and some of my closest friends in late 2007. I was fortunate. Surprisingly, none of them cared. They seemed more surprised that I even felt it was necessary to tell them.
Personal Stories From Service Members
To them, it was not necessary to know. They felt it was part of my personal life and it was none of their business. However, it was important to me. Many gay individuals struggle with their identity. I was no different. I went through periods where I questioned my sexuality, denied it to myself, hated myself for it, denied it to others and eventually accepted it. It was not easy. It was even more difficult in the military.
The military teaches you what “right looks like.” On the outside, I met those standards. I passed routine Army standards such as its physical fitness test, weapons qualifications and other benchmarks. However, it was a different story on the inside. The military stresses the importance of the “whole person.” As a result, on the inside, I felt the military had told me that I was not right, that I did not meet its standards.
At work, I continued to keep my secret. I played what I called the ‘pronoun game’, substituting the pronoun ‘he’ with ‘she’ whenever I discussed my relationship. I found excuses to avoid situations that would require me to be in a setting with military couples. The military prides itself on its commitment to its families. Ironically, I could not include my family because it could have ended our careers.
Serving in the military is not like other careers. You are not a soldier for eight hours a day. There is no punching the clock. Your commitment to your job, the defense of your nation and your fellow soldiers begins the moment you raise your right hand and swear to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States….”
I took that commissioning oath because I wanted to give back to my country as a leader; I admired the traits of honor and integrity.
My personal and professional lives were separate as a college student. However, that changed as I began to understand what it truly meant to be a soldier; that understanding created a conflict. I was an officer in the Army 24 hours a day. I could not live the Army values of honor or integrity if I pretended to be heterosexual. I expected honor and integrity from myself and my fellow soldiers. I could not hold them to this standard if I was unable to do it myself.
As I said, no one in my unit ever asked me, and I never told anyone in my unit. However, I consider myself a casualty of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I struggled with living the lie. I struggled with worrying whether I would accidentally disclose my cryptic, secret and closely guarded relationship. I struggled with not being me. To paraphrase the title of Capt. Jonathan Hopkins’s Sept. 13 essay, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Be All You Can Be,” I struggled not being me.
Eventually, I broke under the pressure. It took a toll on my health. I became severely withdrawn from my platoon. I sat alone in my room. I frequently cried. I lost interest in simple pleasures. I had become severely depressed and anxious.
At the time, I did not realize the extent of my crisis. My chain of command was not aware of the problem either. Months passed before I was eventually referred for mental health help. Several more months elapsed before I was stable enough to be medically retired from the military for depression and anxiety. It has been almost 18 months since I left active duty. Since I left the military, I have continued my recovery. I am fortunate. Not everyone survives. I could have lost more than my career; I could have lost my life.
Like it did for other casualties of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the military spent thousands of dollars on my education and training. Later, the policy cost the military thousands of additional dollars and man hours through counseling, therapy and medication. However, no amount of counseling, therapy or medication would change the fact that I am gay. I am a man who volunteered to serve his country and risk his life. I never expected that I would fight for my own survival as a result of a government-mandated lie.
I am not the only service member who faced this decision, and I will not be the last. Midshipman Joseph Steffan was expelled from the United States Naval Academy after he revealed his homosexuality. He explained his decision in his autobiography, “Honor Bound,” when he said:
But like many gay men and lesbians, I discovered that there is no hiding from yourself. Homosexuality is simply not a choice; it is an identity. The only real choice we have is whether to continue fighting, evading and denying that identity or to finally accept it, heal and get on with our lives.
I was no different from the book’s author. I struggled with my homosexuality. I needed to heal and live my entire life.
Earlier, I said I had been working on this article for almost two years now. I wrote pieces of it when I was struggling with my lifestyle and career. At the time, I put it aside because I thought I had closed a chapter in my life.
Today, I am reopening that chapter by sharing my story. It is something that countless service members are unable to do because they risk losing their careers for being themselves. It is easy to try to assign a number to a problem to try to assess the magnitude of the problem.
According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a national nonprofit organization that is dedicated to ending “don’t ask, don’t tell,” more than 13,500 service members have been fired by the military for simply being themselves since 1994. It is harder to know how many service members continue to try to keep their secret because they want to serve their country. Not everyone is able to keep that secret.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell” costs brave Americans more than their military careers. It costs them their dignity. It could have cost me my life.
The author graduated from the United States Air Force Academy. He is currently serving as an active-duty Air Force lieutenant and preparing to deploy to Afghanistan. He is a member of OutServe, the underground network of active-duty gay and lesbian service members.
I was recently selected to deploy to Afghanistan for a full 365 days next year. This was really hard at first. When I first received the paperwork to sign, I took a step back, a deep breath and signed on the dotted line.
“Even if I kept my sexuality private during my service, couldn’t the military at least honor the person I loved at my death?”
— United States Air Force Academy graduate
Even though the reality was setting in that I would be away from my loved ones for a full year, it was what I had signed up for. I would have to find a place for my dog to live for a year, someone to rent my house and most importantly, set up all my legal issues if something were to happen to me while deployed. It is a scary thought, but very possible with the rising intensity of the Afghanistan war.
Personal Stories From Service Members
If a soldier were to pass away during war, the normal procedures in the military would be to notify the individual identified by the soldier. At the burial ceremony a spouse or child would receive a flag on behalf on the government, to honor the sacrifice.
What if you are gay, or lesbian? Well, in my case the person I love would be out of luck. He would not be notified of my death first, and he won’t receive a flag at my burial. Even if I kept my sexuality private during my service, couldn’t the military at least honor the person I loved at my death?
When I signed up to defend this country I knew that I would live under the policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I agreed to keep my personal life completely secret. I knew that if I died, the Air Force would not show me the respect of presenting the flag of this country — my flag — to the person I loved. They would not even show me the courtesy of giving him the news of my death.
The irony of this whole mess is that I would turn to my straight comrades for the support to make sure word got back to my boyfriend.
Even though our leadership may not give me the dignity to notify the person I love to tell him of my death, I know my straight brothers and sisters in arms would. There is something wrong with this picture.
I ask myself every day why I still stay in the military, and a lot of the time that answer is about the honor of serving my country.
I love my job and the people I serve with, and they love me back even though I’m gay. I stay in the military because everyone I have told in the military doesn’t care that I’m gay. It’s just an older generation of leaders.
Bridget Altenburg in Kukes, Albania, in 1999. Photo courtesy of Ms. Altenburg
By BRIDGET ALTENBURG
Ms. Altenburg, a West Point graduate and former Army engineer officer, deployed twice to Bosnia, where she and her soldiers built bridges and roads. During the war in Kosovo, she served as aide-de-camp to the V Corps commanding general. After leaving the military, she graduated from Columbia Business School in May 2002 and currently works for the Academy for Urban School Leadership, a nonprofit teacher training and school turnaround organization. Ms. Altenburg was also a founding member of Knights Out, an organization of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender West Point graduates and their allies. She lives in Chicago with her partner, Colleen. They just had their first child this month.
CHICAGO — More than 14,000 otherwise qualified service members have been kicked out since 1993 under “don’t ask don’t tell.” I represent the tens of thousands more who were lucky or closeted enough not to get kicked out, but who chose to leave the service voluntarily.
I was born into an Army family. My father deployed for Operation Desert Shield during my senior year. Since we were stationed in Germany, the entire Army base felt like a ghost town.
“The conundrum of living a lie while serving
my country became too much to bear.”
— Bridget Altenburg, former Army engineer officer
Fellow students at my high school were forced to become the guardians of their younger siblings because Mom, Dad or both parents were deployed. The community changed, but people found strength they didn’t know they had.
That experience confirmed my desire to be an Army officer, to be a part of this community that overcame challenges together. Once I made that decision, accepting an offer at the United States Military Academy at West Point was an easy choice.
Personal Stories From Service Members
I graduated from West Point in 1995 as an engineer officer. I chose engineers because it was the closest a woman could come to combat. I was immediately deployed to Bosnia for Operation Joint Endeavor, the first of three deployments to the Balkans between 1996 and 1999.
During that final deployment, I left behind my first girlfriend. When I returned I walked past the celebrating families, got in my car and drove home to celebrate my return privately with her.
I think it was at this point that I decided living in the closet as a soldier under “don’t ask, don’t tell” was something I could no longer do.
Many people, including my father (an Army general) and brother (another West Pointer and career officer), wondered why I threw away a promising career. Like many soldiers who leave the service, I hated having no
control over my life — no idea when I would be deployed again, no control over my next promotion.
But, the biggest reason I left was that I hated living a lie. I hated playing the pronoun game. The conundrum of living a lie while serving my country became too much to bear, and I resigned from active duty in August 2000.
After I resigned I found out that many of my soldiers knew I was gay. My face is an open book, and falling in love for the first time must have been easy to read for soldiers I served with so closely. They never said a word during my service, but afterward senior N.C.O.s and officers told me of their support for ending “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I didn’t know it when I was on active duty, but I was truly a part of the Army family, a family that supports its members no matter whom they love. All that mattered to them was that I was a good officer who put soldiers and mission first.
I left the Army as a promising officer, rated the best of seven aides the general had in his 30-year military career. I left despite joining the Army with every intention of making it a career, a life. The Army is a tough place to make a living, but I was willing to make the sacrifices, to deploy three times in four years, to live in a tent with 10 men for nine months, to wade through hip-deep mud. But I was not willing to give up sharing a life with someone.
Why I Stayed In
By JONATHAN HOPKINS
Mr. Hopkins is a former United States Army captain who was honorably discharged in August 2010. Mr. Hopkins graduated fourth in his class at West Point. He was deployed three times to Iraq and Afghanistan, earning three Bronze Stars, including one for valor. He is now a graduate student at Georgetown University’s security studies program. He has written once before for At War; you can read that post here.
WASHINGTON — It was May 2006 when I was preparing to move from my duty station in Italy when a friend of mine asked me, “What are you planning to do next?”
I was only months short of my five-year minimum requirement in the Army. But my answer was, “Go to the captain’s course and then be a company commander.”Courtesy of Jonathan Hopkins
My friend winced.
“Jon, I’d reconsider that if I were you. This D.A.D.T. stuff is no joke. It will really mess you up.”
He knew a lot about “don’t ask, don’t tell.” He had been in a nine-year relationship with a former United States Army officer. During three of those years his boyfriend was an Army captain stationed in Europe.
Personal Stories From Service Members
I brushed off his experience with my can-do conquer-any-obstacle mentality.
“Thanks, but I’ll figure it out. I can make it work. I got it.” In my hubris as a 27-year-old infantry captain, I thought I had figured out success in the Army up until this point; I should be able to figure this part out too.
I stayed in, and set myself up to learn the truth firsthand. D.A.D.T. is no joke. It does mess you up.
For anyone serving in the military, certain hardships come standard: long hours, too little family time, and yearlong deployments to name but a few. But because of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” my hardships seemed different from those faced by others.
Other soldiers don’t get enough time with their families; I’m prohibited from having a family. They spend a year of deployment isolated from their significant other; I was never allowed to have a significant other. They are obligated to never lie; I am told I must lie to keep my job. They work hard to “do the right thing, even when no one is looking;” I am fundamentally unacceptable to military service according to United States Code, and it feels like everyone is looking.
When people ask me why I stayed in, I tell them it’s for the same reason everyone else does: We are all dedicated to “taking care of soldiers.” There is no responsibility more serious than that, and also none more rewarding. Not only are we growing an effective Army that will keep people safe, but we also feel we are instilling soldiers with values and growing them into even better Americans.
But the explanation of why I remained goes even deeper. We are told in our formative years that “if you work hard, you can grow up to be anything you want.”
We also learn that this didn’t appear to apply if you were gay (a government-endorsed position under “don’t ask, don’t tell”). I wanted to be successful, felt my future promising, and perhaps even wanted to go to West Point, so I never allowed myself to admit I was gay.
It seemed it would suddenly take all those options off the table. “It’s just a phase,” is how I explained it away. The truth had a terrible stigma to it. Denial was the best option.
For me, that denial carried on through West Point, where anything short of their defined standards for perfection was “substandard.” It wasn’t until I was a 23-year-old lieutenant that the realist in me had to admit, “This phase has lasted an awfully long time — perhaps it is not a phase…”
I stayed in and served nine years, trying to escape this terrible conflict of my identity and my mission by focusing on my work and trying as always to exceed everyone’s expectations.
If I was one of the best leaders or most moral officers, then I could say to myself, “See, it doesn’t matter that I’m gay. They all believe I’m a great officer.”
So dedicated to what the Army was doing and pleased with my own apparent success in it, I pushed any thought about leaving out of my head.
I did not want to give up on the organization for what I then considered selfish personal reasons; I would feel like a quitter who had let down all those around me.
One of my (straight) West Point classmates told me as he was leaving the service in 2007, “Part of me feels better about leaving, because I know there are still people like you in the Army serving our soldiers.”
And so I remained, trying to be everything that everyone else wanted me to be. But there was one thing I couldn’t control.
Each passing day I found myself more alone, sad, and afraid than I was the day before. And there was no cure for that under “don’t ask, don’t tell.” No amount of trying to serve my country with distinction could make that go away.
The author is a Coast Guard pilot who has more than 10 years of active-duty service. He has been stationed both ashore and afloat on the East and West Coasts. He participated in the Hurricane Katrina rescue efforts, as well as the Deepwater Horizon Recovery in the Gulf of Mexico.
The same situation has occurred regularly for over 10 years now — it’s a Monday morning and the men and women of this Coast Guard Air Station arrive to begin their workweek.
“I love my job as a helicopter pilot, so the only bad days are those when I am placed in the unwanted position of having to lie or deceive my coworkers because of D.A.D.T.”
— United States Coast Guard pilot
As the focus on to-do lists begins to take form, so also erupts the jovial banter between my fellow Coasties reflecting on their activities over the weekend. Whether standing around the coffee maker, talking over particle board partitions separating desks, or walking out to the aircraft for an early morning training sortie — it all
begins the same: “So what did you do over the weekend?”
Personal Stories From Service Members
After all these years, I’ve finally gotten over freezing-up at the mention of those eight words.
“Not much,” I’d respond and leave it at that.
As an aircraft commander and an active member of the air station’s wardroom I was caught off-guard one day when I was stopped and candidly asked why I was so aloof.
“Aloof?” I asked incredulously.
“Yeah,” came the response. “You never talk about your weekends or vacations; you come across as a real jerk sometimes.”
And then it hit me: all those times I avoided answering those innocuous questions — “Did you see the game over the weekend?” “Where did you spend the holidays?” “We missed you at happy hour” — I was in fact damaging the camaraderie I had worked so hard to establish.
After five years at my unit, I had nothing but respect and trust for my fellow Coasties. But since I’m a gay man, I’m put in a very tricky situation that prohibits me from discussing anything related to my sexuality.
No mention of the exasperating home-improvement projects that my partner and I have faced, no discussion about the surprise anniversary getaway he had planned for us, no sharing of the struggles I faced while he was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The very things that all of us share, gay or straight, that bring us closer together, I had to avoid. Rather than lie and make up a cover story, I damaged the vital esprit des corps inherent to military life. The very thing that supporters of “don’t ask, don’t tell” fear will be eroded by openly gay and lesbian service members is already jeopardized by the inherent aspects of not “asking” and not “telling.”
Over the years I have had good days and bad ones — not unlike any other job. I love my job as a helicopter pilot, so the only bad days are those when I am placed in the unwanted position of having to lie or deceive my coworkers because of D.A.D.T.
I’ve been asked why I put up with it all.
My reasoning for sticking with it, and what I reflect upon when I do get frustrated at the day’s end, is that I know I have done something for the greater good of humanity. Maybe I saved a life by pulling someone’s son from a sinking fishing boat. Maybe I prevented a terrible injury to someone’s mother by airlifting firefighting equipment to a burning sailboat.
Maybe I just made some kid on the beach look up, wave, and be excited that a big orange helicopter just flew over his head.
In the end I know that I have contributed to making the world a better place. That’s why I have stuck it out through all the hard times and the instances I have had to be untruthful to the men and women who accompany me on some of the most horrific rescue cases imaginable.
I also owe it to friends who endured often cruel investigations typically followed by heartbreaking separations from their Coast Guard, the profession they’ve come to know as a family.
These men and women risked their own lives, many for almost 20 years, answering calls for help only to be told that their service was no longer wanted because of their own sexuality.
I owe it to them to stay and fight as long as I can because I know they would do it for me.
I hope that in the end opponents who say that “don’t ask, don’t tell” is in the best interest of this country’s armed forces will be able to understand that selfless service to one’s country and fellow human beings is never exclusive. I have never asked the men and women I’ve rescued about their own sexuality — it’s irrelevant.
An act as noble as saving another person’s life shouldn’t come with strings — nor should the criteria upon which this nation’s guardians are chosen.
By MATTHEW ROWE
Mr. Rowe is a West Point graduate, class of 2004. He served in the Second Brigade Combat Team, First Infantry Division in Schweinfurt, Germany, and in the Second Infantry Division at Camp Casey, South Korea. He is currently working as a planner for a private aviation company in Long Beach, Calif., and he serves on the board of directors for the West Point Society of Orange County.
ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — I resigned my commission as a captain in the United States Army last year. Like hundreds of young officers who resign every year, I felt that I had done my time and I was ready to go. I spent almost all of my time as an officer stationed overseas — three years in Europe, 15 months as a platoon leader in Iraq and a year in Korea.
“There are things that I miss about the Army more than I ever thought I would. But, there are also things that I wish I never had to endure.”
— Matthew Rowe, former Army captain
I left the Army in the usual way. I filled out my resignation papers months in advance, as Army regulations require. I listed many of the same reasons as my peers: “I desire more freedom and control over my life. I want to decide where I’m going to live, whom to work for, and for how long. The army promotion system is too rigid, and it is overwhelmingly based on time in grade as opposed to quality of performance.”
One thing that I did not mention in my resignation papers was the fact that I am gay. When I left the Army at age 27, I had spent one-third of my life, or nine years, closeted in the military.
Having read that, you might think that I had no business entering the Army if I was gay in the first place.
Well, at that time, when I was in high school, I didn’t want to accept it, either.
I grew up in Orange County, Calif. I attended Catholic schools, and I worked as an intern in the district office of my Republican congressman. Every homosexual desire I ever had was supposedly a sin that I could have prevented if only I prayed harder or if I were just mentally and spiritually stronger.
But, after more than a decade of trying to change and trying to control my thoughts, frustration, self-loathing, shame, and depression, I finally accepted myself for who I am.
Personal Stories From Service Members
It’s kind of unexpected how I came into the Army. All I ever wanted to do was serve my country, but originally I planned to go into law or the Foreign Service, followed by politics.
At 15, I called up my local congressman’s office to ask if I could be an intern, so I could learn how things worked. In my junior year, one of my Congressman’s staffers asked if I would be interested in going to West Point. I had not considered it. Then, I received an invitation to attend the academy’s summer academic workshop.
I was immediately drawn to the place, its mark in United States history, the beauty of the Hudson Valley, the maturity and discipline of its cadets. I made up my mind that I wanted to go to West Point and become an Army officer. So, I did. I served on the honor committee, which upholds the academy’s honor code: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” I lived the honor code, and I took this obligation seriously.Photo courtesy of Matthew Rowe
I was very deft at brushing off questions about my personal life, or answering them just enough to move the conversation along and get to the next topic. I would test my ability to manage these situations without lying or compromising my integrity.
I lived a life of austerity — work, study and sports. When I became an officer it became work, study, sports, drink and drink some more.
Granted, those years were some of the best times of my life, but sometimes they could also be the worst. As a young lieutenant in my early 20s, I enjoyed driving my black Porsche on the Autobahn, hanging out with my friends for a weekend in Dublin, Barcelona, or Prague, drinking beer at Oktoberfest in Munich, skiing the Austrian Alps in the winter and traveling around the Mediterranean in the summer.
Conversely, my work days started at 5:30 a.m. with meetings, physical fitness training, followed by hours of e-mails, Excel sheets, and PowerPoint hell, which sometimes lasted until 8:00 p.m., depending on the day. We spent weeks, and sometimes months, at field training exercises in the snow and the mud, with about one shower per week, sleeping in freezing tents or in the backs of our metal vehicles, while the exhaust of diesel generators wafted in the air and put us to sleep.
I led about three dozen soldiers in combat for 15 months as a platoon leader in Baghdad. We protected the Army’s bomb squads, traveling around day and night to detonate or disarm the roadside bombs that littered the roadways and trash piles of the cradle of civilization.
I witnessed some amazing and terrible things that nobody could justify — a roadside bomb striking the vehicle in front of me and killing one of my soldiers while wounding two others, shootouts in the middle of rush-hour traffic with frantic civilians dodging cars to avoid the bullets, and headless bodies in piles of trash on the street, while neighborhood children cautiously walked past. Iraq was a crazier place in 2006 and 2007 than it is today. I was — and still am — tremendously proud of what my soldiers and I did to improve a terrible situation.
While I was in the military, I pushed my thoughts aside and denied myself the ability to have relationships. I was always single at unit functions like morale days, military balls and other unit functions. My battalion executive officer (chief of staff) even asked me if I was gay at one of these events because I never brought a date. I responded, dryly, that he would never know since he couldn’t ask, and I couldn’t tell. Then, he added that it wouldn’t matter to him if I were because he wanted to keep me on staff.
I would go out on the weekends with my friends and go through the motions of trying to pick up girls and go to clubs, but I would come home feeling more alone and isolated as a result. There were times that I came home after a long day at work, and I felt very alone, ashamed of myself because I couldn’t be “normal,” and depressed that my youth was slipping away and that I wouldn’t experience love while I remained in the Army.
I was not suicidal, but there were some dark days when I wondered what it would be like if I decided that I didn’t want to live any more. Being gay in the military under “don’t ask, don’t tell” really is a private hell. The psychological effect of feeling alone and depressed was more damaging to me than any emotional effect of being shot at or a bomb blast (both of which I have also experienced). The only thing worse for me was the loss of one of my soldiers.
By objective accounts, I was a pretty good officer. My commanders consistently rated me in the top 10 percent of my peers, always marked “among the best,” and “must promote.” I developed great working relationships with my soldiers and the noncommissioned officers in my unit, mutually respectful of each others’ contributions.
My last brigade commander stated that I must be promoted “Below the Zone” to major (meaning that I should be in the small percentage of officers who are promoted with those in the year group ahead of their own). Just the other day, one of my former soldiers asked me for an employment recommendation almost three years after we last served together. Of course, I wrote him a recommendation, like I had for several others.
I am now a civilian, but I still think of my former soldiers as my responsibility. I care about them; and, I still worry when they are in harm’s way. I was an officer in the United States Army, and that meant something to me. When I got out, I didn’t think I would regret it; but, the truth is that there are things that I miss about the Army more than I ever thought I would. But, there are also things that I wish I never had to endure.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense or the United States government.
Source : https://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/20/gay-service-members-discuss-dont-ask-dont-tell/