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A Gay Soldierís Life

John F. Medeiros,
Master Sergeant (Retired),
U.S. Army

I am the subject of the photograph called Don't Ask, Don't Tell in an exhibit showing social issues Americans are not comfortable with.  Aptly named Issues and Icons, the exhibit debuted in July of 2004 at the International Photography Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. It can be seen, along with the other 40-or-so photographs, by going to http://www.issuesandicons.com/photos.htm (http://www.issuesandicons.com/images/large/Donta.jpg)

The image purposely portrays a stereotypical senior noncom with a no-nonsense demeanor who is bedecked with awards and decorations befitting a 24-year career. Added to the uniform, however, are various gay symbols representing the unspoken truth of the fact that the man proudly wearing the U.S. Army uniform is also a homosexual.

The artist, Adam Nehr, is a distinguished photographer working for a defense contractor supporting NASA and the U.S. Air Force at the Kennedy Space Center and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. He recently became a board member of the prestigious International Photography Hall of Fame.

What does the image really represent? Itís not just a picture of me. It represents every gay man and woman who has served throughout our short history in the defense of these great United States of America in peace and in war. Because of the fears of being discovered and its consequences, it is unfortunate we will probably never know to what extent uniformed gay men and women helped shape U.S. history.

As for me, I certainly didnít shape any U.S. history. I just did my job, and I tried to do it well.

I enlisted into the Massachusetts National Guard in November of 1956 while still in high school.  I already knew I was gay.  My biggest fear at that time was the perceived possibility that the military had "tests" to catch gays.  As far as I knew then I was the only "queer" (the New England term for gays) in the U.S. military, and I was always on my guard.

Twenty-seven years later at my retirement ceremony all I could think of was the fact that I had beat the system, even though I had had two close calls.

From a lowly publications clerk at the Brook Army Medical Center (BAMC) outside of San Antonio, TX, to an office manager for a 25-person committee at the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Reserve Affairs) at the Pentagon, I was fortunate to have had exciting assignments throughout my career.

The publications job was tedious; however, I discovered there was money to be made by doing the duty at the headquarters after hours. As a 19-year-old Private First Class (E-3), I was the one responsible for alerting medical officers of incoming helicopter-borne burn patients and for ensuring the duty officer was awake to sign necessary acceptance orders for those patients. While it doesnít seem great shakes, it taught me responsibilities I never thought I was capable of. After all, I was just a kid from a small town, of immigrant parents, and an immigrant myself. Not bad for gay guy who didnít know what he was getting in to when he joined the Army.

Aside from all of that, the tour at Fort Sam Houston also brought about a great personal, social event. The guys in the barracks discovered I was a virgin (with girls, at least), and insisted on taking me to a bordello on the other side of the border so that I could achieve my manhood. Of course, I was scared out of my boots over this but couldnít back out lest they think I was queer. I donít know how I managed it, but manage it I did. I still get the shivers when I think of that night.

Not so exciting was my tour in Korea. However, my position as operations clerk with an infantry battalion did bring me two promotions in a 13-month period. I left there as a specialist five (E-5) at the ripe-ole-age of 20. The biggest problem in Korea was being consistent with my story as to why I didnít go to the local village each weekend to meet the ladies. If I remember correctly, it had something to do with my fiancť back home, and my strict old-country Catholic upbringing. God forbid anybody should think I didnít patronize the ladies because I was queer! But that was life in the early 50ís for a gay soldier: fictionalizing fiancťs or dodging questions about other personal matters that most red-blooded GIís did on their time off away from camp.

The next assignment was to First U.S. Army headquarters on Governors Island, just a 10-minute ferry ride from the tip of Manhattan. The assignment itself wasnít so glamorous, a clerk-typist for the chief of operations.

My boss was a gnarly chief warrant officer who I think practiced looking mean before going to work each morning. His tutorage was no picnic. At least there was the City to go to each night, which helped me tremendously to find my gay way in the ways of the big city. I remember being terrified at going into my first gay bar in the Village and always looking for an alternative exit in case the place got raided. I knew I looked very conspicuous in my GI haircut, but it didnít stop me from entering that particular place and, in essence, a whole new world. I forever give thanks to the person who thought up off-limits lists, for that was how most of us gays found respite from the rigors of soldiering.

Besides the good fortune of living just a few minutes from Manhattan, I was able to have a weekís temporary duty at West Point for an operations exercise.

While at Governors Island, I somehow managed to get involved with a fellow soldier who lived across the street. It was a very clandestine affair with all sorts of precautions to avoid detection. I had previously paired up with a lesbian soldier, and we had everyone convinced we were a very happy couple. We always took the ferry together into the city and then waited for the next boat to bring my special friend. The three of us then went to her girlfriendís apartment (a former soldier who had been discharged during one of the "witch hunts" that had taken place the year before). Returning to the island was the same, except when we were forced to take the last ferry of the night. In those instances we simply got on and separated. My "gal" and I made goo-goo eyes at each other for the benefit of those watching while my boyfriend dutifully went to either the upper deck or to the other side of the boat. Such was the life of soldiers constantly looking over their soldiers. We took it in stride and considered such tactics as simply out-maneuvering the military establishment in order to be able to serve our country.

Upon reenlisting, I chose to become a stenographer and was shipped off to the steno school at Fort Benjamin Harrison, IN. During the five-month course, I was fortunate to have met more than one fellow soldier whose inclinations were the same as mine. After all, it was a stenographersí school. At least there we were able to give each other support and have company when visiting Indianapolis. The off-limits lists were always a handy tool for finding friendly atmospheres.

Dear Uncle Sam assigned me back to Governors Island at the completion of the steno school. I was assigned to a deputy commanding general. The assignment was short-lived as I received expedited orders for an assignment to the NATO Liaison Office in Ankara, Turkey, that required a top secret clearance. Clearances and their investigations were always a matter of stress; however, I must have been exemplary both on and off duty since the interim clearance was granted and followed up with a final a few months after getting to Turkey.

There really wasnít much actual work to do during most of that assignment. My boss, a full Army colonel suggested I help with the Cub Scout program for the American boys who lived in the Ankara area. I agreed and organized a very successful program. The only drawback was that I was in constant fear of being perceived as "too friendly" with the kids. I made it a point never to physically touch any of the boys. Some of the tykes could have used a hug or two. It would have been one heck of a scandal at any allegation of misbehavior since I represented the Boy Scouts, the U.S. Army, and NATO.

In spite of that, the programs we put on brought many, many compliments from both the Boy Scout adult leaders and the kidsí parents. I was given a handsome trophy by the Boy Scouts upon my reassignment back to the U.S.

One of my official duties was to buy very large wreaths for NATO dignitaries to lay at the tomb of the first president of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Officially known as the Ataturk Mausoleum, it was a great honor for me to be at each ceremony when the VIP would ceremoniously parade the length of the memorial with two Turkish military carrying "my" wreath. I did get to meet many internationally known personages, both civilian and military, because of it.

There was some drama in Turkey during my assignment. In the course of two attempted revolutions, we, as NATO people, were the only foreigners allowed on the streets during the strict curfews imposed by the military authorities. Our NATO sedan was stopped at every corner where we had to show military IDís and our NATO badges. Upon entering the Turkish General Staff building where the office was located (equivalent to our Pentagon), we were escorted to and from our office by armed senior military officers. One afternoon, close to the end of the day, we hurt a loud bang but thought nothing of it. As we approached the entrance for our departure, we could see a dead Turkish officer who had been shot trying to enter the building without authority.

One late afternoon, during normal times, I had the distinct pleasure of opening the entrance door for one Turkish General Ismet Inonu, the first prime minister and second president of the Republic of Turkey. I rendered the Turkish indoor salute (clicked heals and a bowing of the head), which he acknowledged.

My departure from Turkey was a sad one for me. I would miss the work with the kids and would certainly miss the travels I was able to do throughout the country during Turkish holidays. My appreciation for archeology and, to an extent, photography, was greatly enhanced during that tour. I must have done a good job there as I also left with another promotion. I was now a Specialist Six (E-6) at 23 years of age.

I was off to the U.S. for an assignment to McChord AFB, WA, as a stenographer to a brigadier general commanding a NIKE missile headquarters. We were an Army unit tucked away at a corner of the Air Force base. The general already had a civilian steno, so I was reassigned to the Information Office and helped put out a monthly newspaper. The only real excitement at the AFB was our monthly parades to show off our Army military bearing. I was given the job of carrying the generalís flag. I hated marching, but there I was in my spit-polished boots, heavily starched khakis, and a chrome-plated parade helmet. No show biz there; I would have gladly accepted a drum majorís position. At least we werenít marching behind the horses as we had to do during the parades up Fifth Avenue in New York City. What a mess that was!

I was sent to Hawaii in October of 1965. I worked in the chief of staffís office of the 25th Infantry Division, Schofield Barracks. Part of my duties were very beneficial to me. I had to summarize courts martial cases for the commanding generalís signature. It gave me great insight on where not to go in Honolulu as the investigators were casing the gay bars. Many a soldier was being discharged after being seen "leaving a homosexual establishment."

My tour in Hawaii was cut short in December of that year with the division being deployed to Vietnam. I had another set of expedited orders, but this time it was off to war. I was chosen to be the generalís secretary as part of an advance party to prepare for the divisionís deployment. We left on a commercial air carrier on Christmas Eve, traveled a very long night, and landed in Saigon mid-morning Christmas day just in time to freshen up a bit and participate in a traditional military Christmas meal. The only problem was that there was only a spoon for me to eat with. And so started my Vietnam tour. It wasnít all bad those first few months. I soon discovered "family" and so was in good company until we got sent to Cu Chi. There was one young officer that was way too flamboyant for my liking so I avoided him and his crowd at the price of being very lonely at times. Discretion prevailed.

From there, the boss became the commander for an infantry brigade that served with distinction in the Pleiku area of central Vietnam. He eventually got three stars before retiring.

I got very tired of the Army by the time my enlistment was up and opted not to reenlist at the end of my Vietnam tour. I got discharged, went home to Massachusetts, and eventually entered into a convenience marriage a girl I had known in grade school. We had disclosed our proclivities to each other in correspondence while I was in Vietnam. The convenience marriage became very inconvenient after a few months and so a separation and divorce followed. I thought I could start a new life by joining the U.S. Air Force and learning a new career: air traffic control. Another worry, though, as now I had a vindictive ex-wife who, throughout the separation and divorce, told everyone the marriage failed because I was gay. Her proclivities, however, never entered the picture. I behaved like a gentleman and just countered to whoever asked that it was her way of getting back at me. Deep down inside, though, it was a serious concern for clearance investigations.

The air traffic school was at Keesler AFB, MS. It was about 90 minutes away from New Orleans. My routine was that I would study all week, leave for New Orleans after classes on Friday nights and return to the school on Monday mornings in time to study for an hour or two. Even with that routine for five or six months, I managed to graduate with honors. My assignment was to Hurlburt Field, a sub-base of Eglin AFB, FL, to work in the control tower and assist in pilot training on OV-10ís and C-130ís. Thousands of touch-and-go and stop-and-go aircraft maneuvers later, I was reassigned once more, this time to Clark AB in the Philippines.

My flight to the Philippines was highlighted by a stop in Honolulu, where gay civilian friends I had met while stationed in Hawaii had come out to the airport to present me with a lei. I have to admit I was a little overwhelmed by the gesture but it didnít stop me from grinning from ear to ear as I reboarded. It was one of the nicest things that had happened to me.

My original orders were for an assignment at the Manila International Airport where I was supposed to help teach the Filipino military with my air traffic control knowledge, little that it was. I had been given a civilian clothing allowance and was permitted to ship household goods, since I would be living on the economy. All of that literally flew out the window at my arrival at Clark AB; my orders were changed and I was now assigned to that facility. Since I had envisioned a luxury lifestyle in Manila, I was greatly disappointed at the turn of events. It took a lot of convincing to be allowed to live on the economy outside of the base instead of living in the barracks. But I managed.

Through various contacts I was able to find "family," and offered one of them to live at my place. It was a good arrangement and, eventually, the household grew to three roommates. The house eventually became a social gathering place on Saturday nights after the Airmensí Club closed. Since it was a mixed crowd of men and women, albeit gay, to anyone noticing, it was just ordinary get-togethers. It was certainly the good life, even though it wasnít Manila.

After a while, I was transferred to radar control, which I detested. I persevered for a few months. In the meantime, I was fortunate to be promoted once again; I was now a technical sergeant (E6).

I could handle the visual air traffic but the blips on radar screens just didnít seem like real aircraft, and the lines didnít seem like mountains. I asked to be relieved of air traffic control, and I wasÖthat afternoon. The Air Force wasnít taking any chances of a serious accident happening on my shift after my telling them I wasnít hacking it. I was able to revert to my stenographer specialty and became the admin guy for the flight officer. At the end of my tour, I was reassigned to a headquarters at the Los Angeles airport. Unfortunately, on the day the furniture was being loaded for shipment, a courier came by to give me amended orders to the Pentagon, Washington D.C. I was amended into Clark AB and amended out of it too.

The Pentagon, and with it came more worries about clearances. The job at the Operations Center for the Chief of Operations, USAF, required a top secret clearance. Would this investigation be the one where the ex would do me in? I just hoped for the best and, fortunately, nothing came of it as I was granted the clearance. I worked the rotating 12-hour shifts for six months and, as time went by, I became more and more anxious about getting caught. It reached a point where I just couldnít stand the pressure of working in a top-secret room. In my mindís eye I could see nasty headlines about a gay NCO working in a Pentagon Air Force top-secret on operations center being caught and possible allegations of security compromise.

I decided to leave the Air Force at the end of the enlistment. It caused quite a stir when I made the announcement since it was such a critical job. They had less than a month to find a replacement.

I worked for a railroad company in Washington. I was a secretary to a vice president. No great shakes, really. After a couple of years I realized I had made a serious mistake in leaving the military with 14 years active duty. I began to look into getting back in. The Services were willing to take me in, but wanted me to either go back to basic training or wanted to bring me in two ranks below what I had left with. Fortunately one weekend, I was commiserating my situation to a friendís friend who suggested that I join his Army Reserve unit and apply for active duty after a few months. That is what he did. Thatís what I did, and I could get back into the Service without losing a grade, too.

After submitting an application for active duty, I was interviewed by a colonel in the Chief, Army Reserveís office in the Pentagon, was accepted, and started active duty at the same office the following week as a staff sergeant (E6). Life was good.

I managed almost nine years of active duty for the Army Reserve, working in various assignments from ordinary clerking to being admin NCO for various Reserve and National Guard studies, a feasibility study and eventual implementation of a program to individually manage Army Reserve officers, and finally a five-year tour with the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Reserve Affairs) on a 25-person multi-service committee designed to advise and convince employers throughout the United States and territories that reservists were by law entitled to have their jobs back when finished with active-duty tours.

Besides being the admin NCO, I also served as the assistant ombudsman to reservists who needed assistance. What cases the committee couldnít resolve was forwarded to the Department of Labor.

During those five years I was promoted twice. The master sergeant (E8) promotion came just as my 20 years of active duty approached. The big question was whether or not to risk the two mandatory years of active duty to be able to retire in that grade and run the risk of something going terribly wrongÖ.one accusation of being gay and my whole career would be down the tubes. It was a risk worth taking, I decided, after doing the math of what the promotion, longevity, and cost of living pay raises would do for me at retirement. However, it wasnít at all an easy decision.

Those five years allowed me to occasionally work directly with the assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs and with the secretaries of the Army and the Air Force. I was privileged to have met Secretary of Defense Weinberger at a luncheon.

Upon retirement I was awarded the Department of Defenseís Defense Meritorious Service Medal and the National Guard Bureauís Meritorious Service Award. The U.S. Army had previously awarded me with four Army Commendation Medals along with various Certificates of Achievement.

I stood proudly in April 1983 in the reviewing stand at Fort Myer, VA, while the U.S. Armyís Third Infantry marched by along with the Third Infantry Colonial Marching Band in my honor. The thought that ran through my head at the time was "I beat the system! Iím here where I belong!" Itís a sad commentary though that any gay man or woman should have to think that during a retirement ceremony.

Never mind, I was still elated. So happy, in fact, that when a former boss of mine, an Army colonel, approached me for congratulations, I spontaneously gave him a huge kiss on the cheek. He was astounded, but I quickly assured him it was OK as it was a Portuguese custom to kiss everybody on special occasions.

I sincerely hope my story shows just how cunning a gay had to be to avoid the pitfalls of accusations and investigations. It was always a case of looking over oneís shoulder to be sure everything was OK while serving my country to my utmost. It was tedious, and Iím thankful I prevailed.