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A Common Thread


George Richard Phillip
Zimmerman, Jr
US Navy Veteran

As veterans, we share in the common thread of service to our nation; as LGBTQ people, we share in the common thread of culture; and as humans, we share in the common thread of life. Together, these threads blend and unite to make an amazing tapestry of experiences, memories, and a story that is constantly being written, revised and expanded to include the richness of our human experiences and diversity. In this tapestry, some of the threads are new and shiny, while others are older and worn from time and use… Yet both are equally important for the tapestry to be complete and meaningful.

There is no doubt that gay culture is generally youth-oriented and focused on “current events.” That is why it is vitally important that LGBTQ advocacy groups and organizations who are concerned about equality issues are cognizant of the fact that incredible numbers of veterans faced disciplinary actions and discharges long before the discriminatory and unconstitutional Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Many of those veterans will never be able to reclaim lost careers or even receive an acknowledgement from the government that maligned and mistreated them.

Recently, while on a visit to Washington DC, I was informed by a young, obviously “caught up in the moment” veteran that my service in the Navy was “old news” and only what happens “right now is of any importance” or “has any relevance to current events.” Needless to say, I don’t quite share his opinion nor do I consider myself “old”, by any stretch of the imagination! He continued his enthusiastic lesson by saying that the “young crowd” is making the recent changes in military policy possible! As he spoke enthusiastically pointing out the most recent heroes of the DADT era, I could not help but think that it was terribly unfortunate for this young man to suffer from tunnel vision. Yes, it is certainly true that many fine, dedicated young activists have been (and will continue to be) instrumental in the campaign to address and change military policies that affect LGBTQ service persons, but frankly, it is astonishing that some people seem to forget that they – and their achievements -- stand on the shoulders of pioneers and patriots who served in silence and sacrificed much … some even giving their very lives in defense of this nation. Today’s pending victory over a history of discrimination is the result of years, more correctly, decades of efforts, demonstrations and resistance to discrimination by those whose military careers might be considered “old news.” Without the combination of these efforts, both “old” and “new”, neither the change in public opinion nor the pending repeal would be possible. And, as I reminded my young fellow veteran, it’s important to realize that today’s “new” will surely be tomorrow’s “old!”

In speaking to nearly 30 veterans who were discharged between 1976 and 1993, I found that there are common threads that unite their stories and lives. There are so many commonalities in their experiences: The anguish caused by the government that they served and the long lasting after-effects of trauma caused by the discharge process. Without exception, each veteran with whom I had spoken was obviously proud to have served their country; each one excelled in the performance of their duties; each one wanted to be able to make the military a career… and unfortunately, each one had an untimely and unpleasant end to his or her career. Yet, in spite of the treatment that many had received at the hands of the Naval Investigative Service or Office of Special Investigations, almost all of the veterans with whom I had spoken would gladly return to service if given such an opportunity. Unfortunately, due to age, health, or physical limitations, that desire cannot become a reality, leaving many with a sense of renewed loss and rejection.

As I mentioned above, a common thread that I readily noted as I spoke with veterans discharged under DOD policy 1332.14 (Enlisted Administrative Discharge Policy for Homosexual Behaviors) is the long-lasting effects of the trauma related to their discharges. In many instances, the deplorable and questionable tactics used by the military investigating agencies were unnecessary, brutal and emotionally/psychologically draining. The emotional scars that many discharged veterans bear is a black eye on the Armed Forces and, more importantly, the government of this nation. In case after case, once the veteran was discharged, he or she was left to their own devices… As I listened to the veterans speak, the analogy of someone being thrown from a moving car came to my mind. In spite of the abrupt and punitive nature of the discharge, not a single instance of aftercare or follow-up was provided to the discharged service member to ensure that they were re-adjusting to life in the civilian world. The veteran, even if decorated and honorably discharged, no longer seemed to matter to the military. From the group of veterans with whom I had spoken, many were able to re-integrate into the civilian community with success, but some discharged veterans spiraled into depression, drug usage and in several instances, suicide attempts. Not surprisingly, only a few were aware that they could apply to the Veterans’ Administration for assistance. From my own experience, and that echoed by the veterans with whom I spoke, it seems that when the military discharges a veteran for being lesbian, gay, or bisexual, there is an unwritten “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that the administrative office follows: If the veteran doesn’t ask about post active duty assistance, they don’t tell them about what might possibly be available to them. For many discharged veterans, this fundamental knowledge is the difference between successful re-integration or incredibly stressful challenges as they try to re-adjust to civilian life. In some cases, the veteran faces the added duress or humiliation of a DD-214 that states “homosexual” as a reason for separation and an RE-4 code that, oftentimes, is assigned to those who are convicted of criminal acts thereby preventing them from re-enlisting in the armed services.

Hopefully, with the pending repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, members of our armed forces will no longer be subjected to this cruel and unnecessary treatment, and the investigative body of the armed forces will focus on “hard targets” rather than “soft targets” such as LGBTQ service persons who have been so highly favored by overly eager investigators for far too long. I hope, once the repeal of DADT is finally in effect, that those who have received RE-4 re-enlistment codes can successfully petition the military service’s bureau of records to have that code removed from their DD-214. Our service was honorable. our discharge documentation should reflect the quality of our service, not provide an additional sting of humiliation.

Recently, I read a powerful statement by Cpl. Evelyn Thomas, one of the Equality 13 demonstrators who were arrested in November, 2010 for handcuffing themselves to the gates of the White House. After appearing in a Washington DC Court Room on May 10, 2011 she stated, “I am on record as an open Lesbian educator...anything else is minor in this world. I am relieved that it is over. I have learned that you cannot depend on other activists or activist organizations for assistance. I have learned that if you are called, if you are chosen by some unknown force to fight (I mean literally to fight) for yourselves and others, then you do it alone. I continue on every day, refusing to bend. I am tired, very tired. I will rest when I die. Until then, I continue on, continue to walk with integrity. How many activists can say that?”

Cpl. Thomas’ statement is a powerful reminder to each of us that our struggle for equality is far from over. As such, neither the movement for equality nor our community can afford to lose such an active, dedicated and visible champion such as Cpl Thomas to apathy, politics or indifference.

It’s true: Our threads may wear and fade over time, but they are an ever-present and strong reminder that we are part of this world. We have made our mark and no one can take away or deny our contributions, acts of heroism, or the impact we have had on the lives of those around us. As the story continues to be written, may we take time to remember and honor our veterans, past, present and future; May we remember and support our active duty service members; And may we remember and become, whether we are “young” or “old,” effective and tireless advocates for equality.

May we fight the good fight till equality is achieved.

Phillip Zimmerman has written new book “For the Convenience of the Government

  2011 Gay Military Signal