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Profiles in Patriotism

Live from Iraq:
An Anonymous
Army of One

By Denny Meyer

Sgt. Tom (not his real name) is one of well over one hundred thousand American troops currently serving in Iraq.  He's a quite ordinary soldier dedicated to doing his job.  He happens to be gay, but that is not at all out of the ordinary.  There are over sixty-five thousand lesbian and gay Americans serving on active duty currently.  If he were left-handed and or Southern Baptist with a girlfriend back home in Albuquerque, he would not have to keep any of that a secret; we'd be able to tell you all about him and exactly what he does in Iraq.  I can tell you for sure, he does not have a girlfriend back home.  But, because of the Don't Ask Don't Tell law, passed by Congress in 1993, I cannot tell you his real name even though he wants to tell his story.  He wants you to know that there are deeply patriotic gay and lesbian Americans who have volunteered and are serving on the front lines right now, dedicated to what they are doing, while suffering profound loneliness in a personal sacrifice in order to serve our nation.

His background is similar to so many others who have chosen to volunteer and chosen to reenlist and make the military a career.  His grandfather served in WWII on the bombers that won the war in the air; his father served in Vietnam, on the ground.  His family is deeply fundamentalist from the American Heartland.  Tom joined the army "to become my own person, to get out on my own, to be a part of something greater than I am, and to be in a structured environment.  Every generation has its wars," he said, "I felt an obligation to do my part."

He is on his second enlistment and service in Iraq by choice.  He is not in the closet as a gay man by choice.  He's told his fundamentalist family that he's gay and they have dealt with that as best as they could, some for better some worse.  But, he cannot tell the Army, because his career would be over in an instant.  He's got a chest full of medals; mortars have landed and exploded just feet from where he was sleeping.  He's a brave man just in his twenties who has learned much earlier than most that life is fragile.  He's got the courage to live anywhere, including back on the fundamentalist family farm.  He has chosen to live in harm's way for the sake of freedom.  Every American can be proud of this boy; you could only wish you had a son like him.

There were some in his immediate family who did not speak to him after he came out to them and left home to live more freely.  Interestingly, when he went off to war in Iraq, the family pride in him resumed with ongoing communication.  What must a son do to be accepted and loved for who he is?

More interesting yet, and quite telling, was where he was first able to find full acceptance and be open.  He and his crew, in an army unit in a combat zone in Iraq, became "a family" of close-knit young men and women dedicated to getting their job done and supporting one other sharing everything.  Peers and immediate superiors casually asked him, he honestly told, and the unit, where there were others also serving openly, became even more closely united.  Perhaps it is true that fellow warriors form a bond of truth and loyalty that is their strength.

It wasn't always that simple, of course.  During basic training, being gay wasn't an issue.  As anyone who has ever served will tell you, there's no time to think about being gay or straight when you're busy being transformed into a soldier.  Later on, during advanced skill training and as his unit prepared to deploy, there were natural questions about family and girlfriends.  He learned to prevaricate; to talk in circles, as he put it.  "I had to start living two lives; not lying but giving answers that seemed like answers but weren't," he said.  It was not until they were in Iraq, surviving mortar attacks, roadside bombs, and the stench of mortal fear together that it became necessary and possible to become bonded.  "Its a huge relief," he said, "for all of us, straight and gay, to have each other to talk to openly."  

Yet, for Sgt. Tom, there is the burden of having to start over from square one with each new assignment, building trust with his fellows.  How much better it would be if everyone could be open about who he or she is from the start; thus weeding out the bigots at the beginning, as they are so dangerous to unit cohesion later on in combat where they cannot be relied upon because they are too immature, too troubled, too self-centered, and too angry, so as to be unable to relate to those of a different color, or religion, or gender, or orientation.  "In Iraq in a crew," he said, "We are all each other's support group, male and female.  We're all trying to figure out life, what we are doing there, under fire; everyone shares."  Even immediate superiors, officers barely older than those they lead, are part of the support bond.  The steel-eyed cold gruff COs of old movies are only a myth in today's war.  The reality is more like his female commander who took the time to hear about the loneliness and anxieties of her troops between battles.  She knew what she was doing, she knew how to lead.  The bond and trust she formed with her sergeants enabled them to keep all their troops alive, male and female, gay and straight.  Her orders were followed without question, but also without a moment's doubt that she knew who each man and woman was and would not needlessly risk their lives. 

The modern democratic military, based upon earned trust and bonding, is unique in its ability to succeed over stratified enemy armies that lack the united passion of defending their own freedom.  Today's American armed forces are a unique example where men and women, black and white, Hispanic and Asian and others, all are equals bonded in mutual respect serving their nation resolutely and proudly.

Those few who do cause problems, who cannot follow the American tradition of respect for those different from themselves, do not belong in our fighting forces.

Sgt. Tom's experience at the combat unit level is a demonstration of the success that such freedom achieves, as exemplified by the militaries of Israel, Australia, the UK, and other nations where openly gay personnel are fully integrated into their armed forces.

Sgt. Tom is comfortable doing what he does, he'd determined to serve his country.  But, he does make sacrifices.  While he's able to be open with some, he must be constantly careful.  And, additionally, he finds himself cut off from the openly gay lifestyle that his civilian friends enjoy and even take for granted.  "I'm out of the loop and almost afraid to come home.  Having been here (in Iraq) for what seems like such a long time, I'm going to be different from my gay friends.  I've been lonely enough, for a long time, then stopped thinking about it.  But, it's frustrating not having someone; those emotions have subsided somewhat.  But, now when I go home, I'll be more closed.  I may not be able to pick-up on things, I won't know how to pursue a relationship any more.  I don't really have a home, other than the Army, I don't know what I'll do when the time comes."

Many straight service members have similar issues in transitioning back to civilian life from long tours in Iraq's combat zones.  But, for them, there is an entire well funded structure of services established for that very problem; there isn't anything for gay service members.  Sgt. Tom and others like him are on their own.

To stay sane, he takes calculated risks by ordering gay publications which are mailed directly to him where he is.  He's not actually violating DADT in doing so, but in reality questions could quickly lead to a discharge and the end of his career.

"Why are you doing this; why is it so important to you?" I asked him.  "I'm proud of what I do here, and what I did, I know it makes a difference." He said.  "Before I came here, I read articles about a lot of gays being kicked out; there was the story of a one-star general who was kicked out.  I realized it could happen to me.  If they think that someone who made such a difference, who served such a long time, can be kicked out; I'm not willing to let that happen. I want to prove we can and will serve our country, we have always been here and always will be here, it's why I have such devotion.

I am in the United States Army; I am a Soldier before anything else. This is my life; this is the path I have chosen. One day I will be a Soldier and a Person without having to worry about stereotypes and discrimination. And one day, my partner will be waiting in the crowd of people, welcoming soldiers home, waiting to hold me in his arms."

  2007  Gay Military Signal