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Profiles in Patriotism

Chief Hospital Corpsman, USN, Ret.
James Patrick Donovan
President of American Veterans For Equal Right


by Denny Meyer

Chief Hospital Corpsman James P. Donovan, United States Navy Retired, is a common hero of the American Heartland.  Born and raised in the verdant Kentucky hills, he served his country for 24 years.  Although he has lived in central Illinois farm country for decades, when he gets perturbed his pure high pitched marked bluegrass twang comes through loud and clear.  Its a beautiful sound like a country violin at a square dance.

His family background is pure Americana.  His father, son of Irish immigrants, served in the US Army in WWI, and his eldest brother served in World War II; his dad was a Corporal in the US Army, and served in France.  His brother served aboard minesweepers in the US Navy as a Machinists Mate Second Class (E5), acting Chief.  Another brother served in the Korean War, also in the Navy, as a Seaman Boatswain's Mate.  Like so many other young men, upon graduating from high school, it was the most natural thing for him to follow his brothers into the Navy.  According to Jim, the "romance of the Navy" was something he'd dreamed about throughout his youth. "I used to wear my brother's old dress blue jumper sometimes, little realizing that I would eventually have it re-piped and wear it for real on active duty!"  Perhaps one has to have been a sailor, as we have, to understand the allure and satisfaction of putting on that special uniform and being a member of the United States Navy on a steel gray vessel at sea.

Being gay had nothing to do with it.  He hardly knew what the word meant, nor understood who he was at that point in his young life in the early 1960s.  It was not until he was in the Navy and stationed at the Navy's largest and oldest of hospitals in Portsmouth VA that he met others like himself that it all became clear and a complete life could be realized.  That was the most common experience of patriotic volunteer Vietnam Era vets who discovered themselves while in the service of their country.

As a Corpsman, he experienced an environment in which there was a quiet acceptance of those many servicemembers in that rating with an alternative lifestyle.  "One did one's job and no one cared what youdid on your own time," he said.  Nevertheless, in those days, in the 60s, there was what was know as 'the Spring Roundup' to root out 'undesirable' homosexuals.  Hence, it was necessary to watch one's associations, and be on guard at all times to avoid being discovered and dishonorably discharged simply for being who you were.  How unfortunate and unnecessary all that was (and still is), particularly in a military  medical environment where, even then, colleagues were cognizant of the irrelevance of a corpsman's orientation.    Today, under the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy, the constant scrutiny and suspicion generated by the policy creates a far more intense stress for those serving in silence than ever before.  In addition to those 700 - 900 individuals discharged yearly simply due to being homosexual, an additional 2000 - 3000 (nearly a brigade) simply do not reenlist because of the policy's pressure.

After his first five-year tour, Petty Officer Third Class Donovan left the Navy, taking with him his technical training and experience, and began a hospital work career.  Yet, although he was doing the same sort of rewarding work, he ultimately missed the camaraderie, Navy life, and sense of service to his country.  He returned to continue his military career to conclusion in the Naval Reserve, including field service with the US Marine Corps.

Among his many duties over the years, he served in emergency rooms, a newborn nursery, a castroom, and as an operating room technician.  But one of his chosen "duties", though not official, was his efforts to help and advise other gay sailors who seemed to be having difficulty.  "I couldn't watch some guy screw up his career just because he was gay."  One duty station had a distinct advantage: "My commanding officer was gay, and I can't begin to guess how many guys he kept out of trouble.  I was proud to be on his "team."

Chief's duty stations included Rota, Spain; Kenitra, Morocco; Yokohama, Japan; Memphis, TN; Portsmouth & Norfolk, VA; Camp Pendleton, CA; and aboard the destroyer USS Strong, and the fast frigate USS Lang. His service was recognized with a Naval Reserve Meritorious Medal and a Navy Reserve Service Medal, among others.

As he rose through the ranks to Chief, over the course of his twenty-four years in the Navy, Hospitalman Donovan took increasing pride and pleasure both in setting an example for others to follow, as well as in being able to be a mentor and counselor to those peers and subordinates needing advice.

Following his retirement from the Navy in the early 1990s, Chief Jim was among the early members of Gay Lesbian & Bisexual Veterans of America (GLBVA) which later became American Veterans For Equal Rights (AVER), dedicated to the repeal of DADT and serving the needs of lesbian gay bisexual and transgender veterans.  From its inception, the Don't Ask Don't Tell law was recognized as institutionalized homophobia, which would make honest honorable service far more difficult, if not impossible, for patriotic volunteers who happened to be gay.

Chief Jim has served in several positions on the GLBVA/AVER board of directors --viz., Secretary, Vice-president and two non-successive terms as president, leading the nation's only national LGBT veterans' association as it grew to include more and more chapters in cities across the country.  This year, at AVER's National Convention in Cleveland, he was selected to again lead America's LGBT vets into the culmination of efforts to enable all courageous volunteers to serve their nation in pride, openly as they are.

"One of my proudest moments connected with my military service was when as president of AVER, I received an invitation from the Dept. Of The Army inviting me to place a wreath at the tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery as part of the National Memorial Day Ceremony.  The fact that this invitation came from the Army shows that we command a certain respect from the Military as well as the Dept. of Veterans Affairs. And as I stood there before this noble shrine, this military Holy of Holies, I reflected on the thousands of unknown GLBT servicemembers who, serving in silence, dedicated their lives to this country and all it stands for.  And I humbly dedicated my presence to all of them."

"Every Veterans' Organization was founded with a specific purpose in  mind: the American Legion for Health care for Spanish-American War Vets,  the VFW for job assistance for WWI Vets, and AMVETS for camaraderie of  "like-minded" vets.  GLBVA/AVER was organized for the twofold purpose of the abrogation of DADT, and to be an inclusive organization for all veterans who support GLBT issues and concerns. Even after the removal of the ban, there will  be a need more than ever for AVER.  Our organization continues to grow, and chapters are gearing up to find more ways of supporting GLBT vets who may suddenly come out!"