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Interview with

Brigadier General
Virgil 'Hawk' Richard

United States Army, retired

by Denny Meyer

Virgil Richard spent thirty-two years serving in the United States Army.  His medals include: The Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit with 3 Oak Leaf Clusters, the Bronze Star with 1 Oak Leaf Cluster,  the Army Meritorious Service Medal with 2 Oak Leaf Clusters, the Joint Service Commendation Medal, and the Army Commendation Medal with 1 Oak Leaf Cluster; additionally he has been honored with decorations from the governments of  South Vietnam, Thailand, The Republic of China (Taiwan),  and South KoreaSince the time he entered the ROTC program at Oklahoma State University in 1955 until the day he retired more than three decades later, his service and leadership have proven to be invaluable to the mission  of the Unites States Army.  Yet, had the Army known at any time that he was a homosexual, he would have been summarily dismissed in the same manner as any gay Private in boot camp, albeit with perhaps greater angst amongst his peers and seniors.

Make no mistake, every single soldier's service and potential contributes to America's defense of freedom, from the World War II combat foot soldier's service of PFC Franklin Kameny --who went on to earn a doctorate degree and led our march for civil rights for more than 40 years-- to Virgil Richard's rise through the ranks due to his expertise, leadership, and dedication.

Virgil Richard grew up in rural Oklahoma and like so many others took the solid earthen American values of his rearing through his life: stoic perseverance and matter-of-fact performance of excellence.  He had an inkling as early as his 20's that he was, as they say in Oklahoma, "funny."  But, it was not until his mid 30s that he "knew" the true nature of his inner being.  By then, he was in the midst of a meteoric military career, married and a father.  He carried on in the path he had chosen, working hard, facing challenges, and earning each reward for his dedication while, deep within his soul, enduring decades of solitude.

While in Senior ROTC, he became a Brigade Commander, and as a distinguished military graduate, was commissioned in 1959.  He had expected to remain in the military no more than three years; but his continual excellence led to non-stop advanced promotions until, a lifetime later in 1991, retired Brigadier General Virgil Richard could at last turn his attention to bringing out the inner meaning of his life.  As a rural farm boy, he said, he'd never anticipated becoming a General.  Through it all, he never once violated policy in his actions.  As he traveled the world in service to his nation, there were temptations and deep frustrations, he said; but he always remained true to his family and his military mission.  Yet, the more senior he became, the more lonely he was in the small circle and life of flag officers.

After retirement, he'd considered and put off coming out for many years.  He was inspired to come out publicly, in part by a visit to the Gay Games in Australia where he felt uplifted in seeing so many openly gay athletes who were being affirmed by the public.  He decided that he was "willing to take the heat" if his action could have some influence on changing the policy.  "The Department of Defense and Congress must realize that there are one million gay and lesbian vets alive in America today, and over sixty-five thousand currently serve in the Armed Forces.  Each year we loose an entire brigade (3500) of gay and lesbian service members who decide not to reenlist because they no longer want to put up with having to hide who they are."  He noted that, in the current conflict, "We are down to a reserve of just four brigades, two of which have long term dedicated missions."  He also pointed out that recent surveys have found that over 40,000 gay and lesbian young people would sign up to serve their country if they could do so openly; "That's ten brigades!" he pointed out.

In 2003, he joined a group of senior retired officers in an SLDN-sponsored "coming out" in order to stimulate discussion of the unfairness of the DADT law on its Tenth Anniversary and its adverse effect on military readiness.

In an interview with John Files of the New York Times, published on December 10th, 2003, General Richard said,  "No one knew I was gay when I was in the military.  I suppressed my desires, and didn't allow myself to be who I am because there was too much at stake.''  The Times article related, "he thought the policy had damaged military readiness and recruitment and retention of soldiers." ''There are gays and lesbians who want to serve honorably and with integrity, but have been forced to compromise. It is a matter of honor and integrity,'' he told the Times.

After so many years in the closet, the reaction he got surprised and gratified him.  He got letters of support from peers, subordinate officers, and an untold number of anonymous civilians, saying that they supported him one hundred percent.  What truly made him feel that he'd done the right thing was the letters of appreciation that he got from service members all across America saying that he had inspired them.  While he does not hear active duty Army leaders calling for change, he believes they would thoroughly carry out an order to integrate sexual minorities in the military.  Citing President Truman, he noted, that our nation would not have the integration it does today without the precedent set by our armed forces following the 1948 Executive Order integrating American Blacks into our military.

As for public opinion, with a majority already in favor of ending DADT and allowing open service, he believes that once there are congressional hearings increasing public understanding, the polls in favor will go up to 90 percent.  What he does not understand is continued congressional inertia at this point.

Asked what he thought of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Pace's recent remarks that homosexuality is immoral and has no place in our armed forces, BG Richard said that he wonders what the chairman had been taught as a young person that would cause him to make such incomprehensible comments as the leader of our troops, including more than 65,000 gay and lesbian troops under his command.  "It's not acceptable for him to behave that way," he noted.

When asked about President Carter's recent call for the repeal of the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy, BG Richard said that he appreciated it very much, but wished that former President Bush and current Vice President Cheney would also say so.  This comment, during our interview, was on the day that the vice president was shown in news photos proudly holding his new granddaughter born to his lesbian daughter.

Regarding General Shalikashvili's repudiation of the DADT policy early this year, he noted that, "He was my section leader in Army War College; I knew him and his wife well; I respected him.  He was an intellectual with a steel trap mind; you could not bullshit him.  He had a broad perspective on US foreign policy and was very balanced.  He studied the issue of Don't Ask Don't Tell extensively before he came out with his statement.  He weighed all the issues and concluded with the position of calling for repeal.  I admire him for that and for having the the conviction to stand by it with a public statement.

The current obstacles faced by the repeal movement, according to General Richard, involve the lack of access to those in the Pentagon who would ultimately be the force to sway different thinking on the policy.  Those active duty generals, lieutenant generals, and senior civilians in military leadership need to be convinced that the policy has no value.  At present, however, those leaders are hiding from the issue by expressing the viewpoint that they are simply following the law, and thereby avoiding any constructive discussion.  He believes that these leaders are practicing hypocrisy by washing their hands of the issue while at the same time being well aware of the number of gay men and women serving under their leadership.

What is needed now, he said, are fair and balanced hearings in which both sides present their positions.  He would hope, he said, that the President would look at the Military Readiness Enhancement Act in a fair and balanced way and make an intelligent decision.  He believes that most current  presidential candidates, with some exceptions, would support the change, regardless of political party.

Citing his 30 years of experience in military finance and his recent participation on a blue ribbon panel commissioned to determine the cost of the current policy, he spoke of the cost of DADT being in excess of three hundred sixty-seven million dollars.  He notes, however, that official books are not kept on the costs and that the price is likely to be much higher.  "Americans are footing the bill, and if they realized the cost of this law, they would not be pleased."

Concluding our interview, General Richard told me, "To me the issue is military readiness and the current Don't Ask Don't Tell law significantly hampers our armed forces in fielding what we need to fight terrorism --which we will have to do for many years."

For a man who sacrificed so much for so long, Virgil Richard came across as a remarkably happy man in retirement.  He now lives with his partner in Austin, Texas.