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Courage and Conviction


Michael Bedwell

As the year-end reviews of 2009 are being written, beyond the mice of petty political scandals and the rats manufacturing poisonous political polarization, despite persistent economic motion sickness and another stomach punch to LGBT equality in the form of the overturn via public referendum of marriage equality previously passed by Maine’s legislature, surprisingly, no less than the extremely mainstream “men’s magazine” [read straight, white, and rich-aspiring] Esquire took notice of a 29-yr. old gay black man raised by a single mom too poor to afford health insurance. Before they named their annual “Sexiest Woman of the Year,” Esquire’s “Candidate of the Year” is former US Army CPT. Anthony Woods.

For Woods, who prefers “Tony,” it was a challenging, at times dangerous, and frequently courageous path to the pages of the magazine that symbolizes so many things he is not. The flatlands of Fairfield, California, approximately 50 miles northeast of San Francisco, have almost nothing in common with the desert of Tall ‘Afar, Iraq, a mainly ethnic Turkmen city, located 260 miles northwest of Baghdad in the province of Nineveh. There are two things, however: Fairfield’s Travis Air Force Base, which has supplied combat support for the war effort throughout Iraq, and Woods.

Woods' mother, like his father and Vietnam-veteran grandfather, was in the Air Force and he was born at Travis. He also served in the 2005 bloody battle for Tall ‘Afar as a part of the 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment, his second deployment to Iraq after previously being assigned to Diyala province northeast of Baghdad. The first resulted in his receiving an Army Commendation Medal, and the second a Bronze Star for Service, but he’s proudest of all of not losing anyone under his command across days when, in his words,

“tedium and toil turned into chaos and tragedy. One day in September of 2004, four of my soldiers would tempt fate and survive. I watched in what felt like slow motion as the blast of a roadside bomb engulfed their vehicle. Later, I wondered if next time we’d be so lucky.”

Leaving Tall ‘Afar unscathed was at least the third time that Woods himself escaped death, the first after complications with his birth that, even if he survived, doctors feared might cause cerebral palsy or brain damage. He not only survived, but lettered in football and track in high school, and much has been written of his intellectual gifts. As Esquire observed, summarizing his mother’s feelings: “Every accomplishment of his feels to her like the beating of some cosmic odds.”

His service in Iraq followed his appointment to and graduation from West Point with the kind of education his family finances could never have provided. The last to take opportunity lightly, his gift for leadership was recognized when he was made commander of summer training for the 1200 yearling [sophomore] class cadets, and he made the Dean’s List for academic achievement.

Since Iraq, he’s repeatedly demonstrated his determination to help others, particularly those affected by poverty, including bicycling cross country to raise money for Habit for Humanity and lending his own hands on three trips to help rebuild Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. These efforts won him the Robert F. Kennedy Public Service Award.

He also enrolled in the Masters Degree program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, with the help of a 50% scholarship from the school and an equal amount from the Army.  He had already been accepted by West Point as an instructor of economics post graduation. Again he excelled and would eventually be one of the 2008 Commencement speakers.

But during his second year at Harvard, after years of having attempted to repress his homosexuality, hoping, as so many, that it would go away, the very source he had looked to for help conversely resulted in his accepting himself. As a Christian since he was 14, he had discovered a group online that encouraged people to believe in the power of prayer. However, when he learned that they preached that “God does not listen to prayer related to homosexuality,” he realized how inconsistent that was with what he both believed and valued about his faith. In turn, one of his professors mentored his growing self-acceptance, and soon Woods, who’d served on the Honor Committee at West Point, realized, much like his Academy classmate LT. Dan Choi, that he could no longer honorably serve in silence.

Though they’d never met, he informed his Army student detachment commander in South Carolina, and she, as procedure demanded, started a six-month investigation to determine whether he was falsely making the claim just to get out. They determined that he was telling the truth, should be given an honorable discharge, but, oh, by the way, you owe us $35,000 for your scholarship to Harvard.

He decided not to fight that, but his case did become public, and, in the process, he learned that he did not know at least one of his fellow soldiers as well as he thought.

Overall, he recalls no significant homophobia during his five years in the Army. In fact, there was one guy in his unit who was “pretty much out,” and Woods saw no evidence that anyone cared. In his own life, after reaching the decision to be himself, he told most of his friends, one-by-one, that he was gay but was unable to connect directly with one of them before that person was told by someone else. He’d given permission to tell, and asked him to ask the third person to call him. He never did. The next Woods knew someone he served with side-by-side in Iraq was personally attacking him in comments posted to the online version of an article in Harvard Magazine, railing that Woods was not to be trusted, was surely consciously and unfairly exploiting the Army for a free education that someone else [nongay] could have gotten, then abandoning his responsibilities to the US Army. Of course, he insists, he has nothing against gays.

No one was more surprised than Woods. “I was the replacement commander for this guy’s platoon. We ate together in Iraq almost every day; hung out together almost every day. I was a groomsman at his wedding! It really took the wind out of my sails for awhile.”

Still, he’s convinced this is an exception, at least among younger generations in the service.

“I didn’t see anything that told me the military couldn’t handle out gays. But some who’ve been in, say, fifteen years or more are continually repackaging the excuses why the ban can’t be lifted. When they say that they can’t do it in time of war—I firmly believe that’s the perfect time to do it because if someone’s about to deploy they don’t give a crap whom someone else dates, they’re distracted by more important things. I still love the Army and would be happy to serve again if the policy went away.”

DADT Casualties Joseph Rocha, Anthony Woods & Dan Choi

The irony of his mission in Tall ‘Afar being called “Operation Restoring Rights” is not lost on this writer.

After leaving the Army, and briefly working in the private sector, a rare opportunity for greater public service arose that Woods felt he couldn’t pass up, however small the odds of success. The US Congresswoman representing his own district, Ellen Tauscher, resigned to become Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Even had she not previously been the primary sponsor of the House bill to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Woods would, no doubt, have decided to run for the Democratic nomination to replace her; such opportunities rarely come. The surprising results were why Esquire came to name an unknown running for office for the first time “Candidate of the Year.”

Not because he won, which he didn’t. But because in less than four months, and up against no less than 13 other candidates, including the Bill Clinton-endorsed Lt. Governor, a household name after being in California politics for 35 years, a Tauscher-endorsed state senator, and an Emily’s List-endorsed, largely self-funded state assemblywoman, political virgin Woods, running not as the “gay candidate” nor the “black candidate” but one who raised issues relevant to everyone such as health insurance and how to merge the goals of national service and educational opportunity also raised an astounding $100,000 made up mostly of small donations, and came in fourth among the Democrats, earning nearly 9% of the vote.

And he garnered what, as they say, money can’t buy: the beginnings of national name recognition which neither began nor ended with Esquire but within the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post, and on CNN and programs such Real Time with Bill Maher.

And, he gained high praise from winner, and now Congressman, John Garamendi: “I'm not the first person to say this and I won't be the last: you have a bright future in politics should you choose to pursue a political career. You have an intelligence, grace, and resume that is worthy of elected office.”

Until that next opportunity comes along, that he may or may not choose to pursue, Woods has returned to public service in another way. He is the coalition director of ServiceNation, the first campaign of non-profit Be the Change, Inc., “to elevate community service as a core ideal and problem-solving strategy for communities across America. I will be helping to manage ServiceNation’s 200 plus coalition member groups, and directing its efforts to support the Cities of Service program—which is building a network of cities and helping their elected leaders develop comprehensive service plans that empower more citizens to get involved in their communities.”

Woods’ campaign slogan was “the courage of conviction.” I would respectfully amend that to say that he has both courage and conviction, and those characteristics, separately and together, have already inspired countless others to aspire to the same. We’ll likely never know how many gays of color he’s touched as only the second black gay servicemember in our history, following late Army SGT. Perry Watkins, to achieve national attention after willingly outing himself to fight the ban. Seeing him among those four, diverse, proud gay veterans who placed a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in October made that historic event all the more memorable. His personal initiative is all the more amazing for he did it so soon after having finally accepted that fact himself, striding little more than a year and a half from telling a single person privately to telling millions on television.

And, now, as he focuses his time and talents on service to all communities, I am reminded of a business-size card some in Boston briefly distributed decades ago. It read, “You have just been helped by a gay person.” It turned the idea of the nongay world perceiving us only as a community demanding something on its head, and is worth being revisited. That is not to say that I agree with those who suggest we must do anything in order to prove that we “deserve” being granted first class citizenship for I don’t. And I am confidant nothing he does is intended that way. One need look no farther than the content of his Harvard Commencement address to know that his passion for combating poverty and injustice, for feeding hungry mouths and minds, would persist regardless, that it is as natural and necessary for his being as breathing.


Still, it is good to let our light shine, and none shines brighter than Tony Woods as he becomes a leader in another kind of volunteer army.

  2009 Gay Military Signal