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In Australia with the Diggers!

By Mike Rankin
M.D., Capt., MC, USN (Ret)

When I served in Vietnam, our Marine base was very close to an Australian base camp.  There was a lot of interaction between us, we became fast friends, the "diggers" and us Marines.  Over the years some of us have stayed in touch.  In early November, I got an invitation to join them at their Remembrance Day celebrations, an invitation I was honored to receive and eager to accept. It was also the centenary of the Royal Australian Navy, so that made it even more special.  I flew to Australia with a fellow retired Navy officer and his partner, a pediatric dentist.  We landed in Sydney, took a hotel across the street from the ANZAC memorial, where the ceremony was held, and took a couple tours to other parts of the country.  I was asked to speak at the ceremony, and I did so very briefly, just saying how honored I was to be included, and how much my friendship with the "diggers" meant to me over the years.  It was much like the ceremony I lead every year at the Congressional Cemetery on Veterans Day, except that instead of "Taps" they conclude with a trumpet solo called "The Last Post."  Equally moving.  We had a wonderful reunion, comparing our post-Vietnam stories, showing pictures of their spouses and partners and kids.  They congratulated me on the repeal of DADT, without a hint of "what took you so long!"  It was everything I hoped it would be, well worth the very very long flight.

That was November.  In December I had another military experience, this one at National Harbor, near Washington.  It was the Biennial convention of Reform Judaism, with about 5,000 delegates from all over North America.  I was asked to speak about my 30 years as a Jewish lay leader.  The title of the panel was "reaching out to our Jewish service women and men."  It included one of only two rabbis I've met in my many years in the leadership of the Reform movement that I consider homophobic.  The other was in the audience.

I spoke about a Passover seder I led in Yokosuka, Japan, where my young assistant, the son of an American Navy officer and a Japanese Naval architect, translated the prayers into Japanese.  I spoke of mentoring the conversion to Judaism of a fellow officer while on board our ship on Yankee Station, off the coast of Vietnam.  And I spoke of the attempted suicide of a young sailor, brought on because a fundamentalist chaplain told him God would send him straight to hell for his feelings about men, even if he never acted on those feelings.

After the panel was over, both of the rabbis came up to me to apologize for their previous comments about gay people, saying they very much regretted any pain they might have caused.  They also expressed outrage at the chaplain's treatment of the young sailor.

In the Jewish tradition, this is called "making tshuvah."  Literally, turning from the bad to the good.  That they did.  It was wonderful to see.

  2012 Gay Military Signal