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Memorial Day:
Remembering Alan Rogers

By Sharon Alexander
Servicemembers Legal Defense Network

Major Alan Rogers; Photo: US Army

Memorial Day is a special time for Americans who have lost loved ones to the service of our country. The families and friends of the more than 4,000 American service members killed in Iraq since 2003 share a special bond rooted equally in grief and pride, emotions we will share as we mark Memorial Day once again this year.

This Memorial Day is particularly salient for me this year as I remember the life of my friend and colleague, Major Alan Rogers. As many people now know, Alan was killed in Iraq by an IED on January 27, 2008. According to his commander, he shielded two others from the blast, who likely would have been killed were it not for Alanís bravery.  Alan was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery on March 14th, 2008, in the
presence of more than two hundred grieving but proud friends, fellow soldiers, and family members.

I knew Alan through my work here at Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and through our mutual activism in the DC 

Chapter of American Veterans for Equal Rights. He was a student at Georgetown University, pursuing a masterís degree through a prestigious Army fellowship program, when I first met him.

Because of my familiarity with the legal ins and outs of ďDonít Ask, Donít TellĒ and the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, a bill that would repeal that law, Alan interviewed me for his final paper for school. I used to chide him for being so ďoutĒ to so many people, and worried that some day the fact that he was gay would get back to the military and spell the end of his career. I worried that his choice of topic for his final paper might raise eyebrows, and cause him to be discovered. But he seemed fearless, confident that heíd make it through his career without his sexual orientation getting in the way. In the end, I guess he was right.

When I first learned of Alanís death through an email I received at work from a mutual friend, I was stunned. I walked dazed into the office of a good friend and colleague and cried bitterly. I cried because none of us would ever see Alanís beautiful smile again, except in photographs and in our mindsí eyes. I cried because it was unbearable to think of this beautiful and gentle person being ripped apart by an IED in a foreign land. I cried because Alan was so good. He was one of the kindest, most generous, thoughtful, genuinely good people I have ever known. And he was gone, and nothing would ever change that.

In additional to this grief, which I am sure is typical of that felt by everyone who loses a friend or loved one to war, my grief was compounded by the knowledge that Alan would not live to see the day when the Army he loved so dearly would accept him for who he was.

Alan was so many things to so many people Ė he was a friend and mentor, an exemplary commander, a co-worker, a student Ė many of us didnít even know until after his passing that he was an ordained minister. And all of these parts of Alanís life were shared and celebrated by those who knew him and grieved his loss, and those who reported on his death in the papers. But the fact that he was gay was taboo.

I donít think that people are defined primarily by the sexual orientation, but I think itís a part of any personís life. If I died tomorrow, my obituary would include mention of my loving husband and my kids Ė itís a part of my life, just as much as anything else. But because Alan was gay, this part of his life would have been buried with him if it werenít for the efforts of friends who insisted on telling Alanís story Ė including the fact that he was gay.

Why does it matter? Why should anyone need to know that Alan Rogers, an American patriot who died doing what he loved most Ė serving our country Ė also happened to be gay?

It matters because in our country the law says that gay people who want to serve in our nationís Armed Forces have to conceal their identity for the privilege of doing so. And as a result, thousands of very good, fair, and decent straight service members have no idea how many of the phenomenal people they work with every day also happen to be gay. This invisibility creates an environment of complacency about ďDonít Ask, Donít TellĒ and what it requires of gay Americans in uniform. And change does not happen in an environment of complacency.

This part of Alanís story is important because Alan can put a face on gay service members in his death, even if he couldnít during his life. Alan was by every metric an utterly superb Army officer. He gave his life for our country, and saved two other lives in the course of sacrificing his own. He also happened to be gay. So why do we have a law in this country that makes Alanís life less worthy than any other? Why should Alan have had to sacrifice the freedom to live honestly among his military peers, to date and maybe even find someone special enough to spend his life with? Why did he have to give so much more as a privilege of serving our country? These are the questions Alanís life and death pose for all of us.

Alanís funeral at Arlington was beautiful. The solemn procession of people that followed the caisson bearing Alanís casket came from all walks of life. Alan touched so many lives so profoundly, that people came from literally all over the world to pay their final respects to him. And there, at that funeral, the many worlds in which Alan lived came together at last. Active duty friends and former colleagues in dress uniform stood beside a large cadre of gay veteran friends of Alanís. The sea of faces contained members of every race, young and old. A few brave gay active duty service members even came to pay their respects, nervously doing their best to keep their distance from the gay veterans they knew there, and trying instead to blend in with the other uniforms in the crowd. Sometimes I noticed people eying each other uneasily, as if they were wondering about each otherís connections to Alan.

After the funeral, I saw an officer with whom I served as a young lieutenant many years ago. I walked across the lawn and called his name, and within seconds we were reminiscing about our younger years serving together overseas. He asked me what I was doing now, and I told him Iím working to repeal the ban on gays in the military. He was supportive. ďWe need all the good people we can get,Ē he said.

I asked him how he knew Alan, and he said they were classmates together at Georgetown. He asked me how I knew Alan, and I hesitated for a moment. Finally, I looked my old colleague in the eye, and I said very cautiously, ďI knew him through my work."

A brief pause followed. ďWow,Ē my old colleague responded. ďThere was so much about Alan I never knew."

There was so much about Alan that people never knew. Iím still grieving his loss, as I know so many others are as well. And Iím intensely proud to have called him my friend.

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