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The Long Road
Home Project:
Finding a Voice
on the Open Road

Marie B. Tracy, Capt, USAFR

This summer, I will go on a journey with four other U.S. military veterans. Together, we will ride our bicycles approximately 3,800 miles from Aberdeen, Washington to Washington D.C. We are partaking in this adventure as part of the Long Road Home Project, an endeavor that aims to help veterans heal their war wounds, bring awareness to the difficult transitory period that many service people face when returning home, and raise money to support other veterans. We each have a different reason for riding, a goal to accomplish, or an internal struggle that we hope to overcome. Riding across the continent, a bicycle will be my vehicle for projecting my voice for the first time in the wake of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’s repeal.

What did DADT mean to a gay service person? Between 1994 and last year, 13,500 people were discharged from the service under the policy. In some cases, Soldiers, Sailor, Marines, Coast Guardsmen and Airmen received less than honorable discharges after multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, solely because vindictive peers outed these individuals to their commanders. DADT was a blatant violation of free speech, due process and equal protection under the First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, respectively. Its entire basis was unconstitutional, its implementation discriminatory and its nature inhumane. Somehow, the policy continued through three presidential administrations and 17 years, while thousands of gay service members served their country silently.

Unfortunately, this silence described much of my experience in the Air Force. Ironically, people who know me would say that speaking has never been difficult for me. I’ve never been at a loss for words…or volume, for that matter. In fact, entering the military was rather like a godsend, as I just seemed to have a built-in “command voice.” At the age of 17, I decided to join the military when I applied for a ROTC scholarship. Coming from a long line of military officers, I wanted nothing more than to serve my country. ROTC was also a way to pay for college. Two weeks after I learned that I would be receiving an Air Force ROTC scholarship, I realized that I was gay. I pressed on, though, and became an Air Force ROTC cadet in August of 2002, despite my worries about the challenges that I might face under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

I believed and still believe that once I committed to something, I committed all the way. This translated into my complete dedication to ROTC and to being the best cadet in my detachment. Of course, everyone assumed that because I was a “great” cadet, I loved being in ROTC, which was far from the truth. I was in the closet while attending a Jesuit University. Only a handful of my friends knew that I was gay; many of them were the other closeted students on campus. I came out to my parents during my junior year of college because I wasn’t sure if I could commission, and I needed them to understand why. I wanted to serve my country, but the thought of lying to myself and those around me for another four years made me physically ill. On a daily basis, I was being conditioned to correlate hiding with having the ability to serve, despite the fact that honesty and personal integrity are values that I hold second to none, along with other members of the Armed Forces. As a result, I decided to commission into the United States Air Force Reserve, which I viewed as the best of both worlds. That way, I would have the opportunity to serve my country, while knowing that my civilian life in New York would provide me with a more open, supportive environment. On May 19, 2006, I received my Oath of Office from my 96-year old grandfather, a retired Colonel in the United States Marine Corps. Though one of the proudest moments in my life, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” still forced me to have to reconcile who I am with what I wanted to be.

Over the last decade as a cadet and Air Force Reserve officer, the Air Force has afforded me some incredible opportunities. As cadet commander of my ROTC detachment, I opened the New York Stock Exchange with a three-star general. I commanded my fellow cadet corps up Fifth Avenue on Veterans’ Day. I commissioned in the historical rotunda of Columbia University’s Low Library. Twice I have traveled to Afghanistan as a logistics officer; the first time was less than six months after my commissioning date. Undoubtedly the most valuable experience was my recent deployment to Afghanistan, where I worked as a logistics advisor for the last six months with the Afghan National Police (ANP). I worked hand-in-hand with the ANP logistics staff at a regional training center in Nangarhar Province, advising my counterparts on ways to improve and establish long-term, sustainable logistics processes. I developed close relationships with many of these individuals and learned about the lives and experiences of my Afghan counterparts.

I did not speak about these incredible events in my civilian life. When I returned from my first deployment to Afghanistan in early 2007, I came out of the closet. I moved back to New York, started my job at Columbia, pursued my Master’s degree, and fulfilled my Reserve duty twice a month. “How was drill?” my New York City friends would ask. “Okay” was my standard response. Instead of sharing the challenges of being a young Lieutenant with them, I kept these experiences to myself. Similarly, when I donned my uniform, I was silent about the rest of my life. On my Reserve base, I didn’t have many military friends, other than the other Lieutenant in my unit. I just didn’t see how I really could have many friends. Instead, I chose to shut myself off from that possibility.

It was not until I pinned on my captain rank that I realized how I needed to stop segregating the different aspects of who I am. I became associated with the military at the exact same time that I realized that I was gay. How could I separate these two experiences? Even more so, I was invested in the well-being of my unit and my Airmen. There were so many things that I was able to accomplish for my Airmen because I was a captain. I was able to make a difference in their lives. So, finally, about eight years after I became a cadet, I started becoming okay with the entirety of me: I am a military officer. I also happen to be gay. I am proud of both of those aspects of my life, as my experiences have strengthened my capabilities as a military leader.

On September 20, 2011, while attending advisor training at Fort Polk, Louisiana, I witnessed the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Since that time, I have experienced something that I never in a million years would have ever dreamed of living through: the military’s transition to open service. More importantly, like so many other LGBTQ service members, I have been a part of this transition myself. My deployment from November 2011 to May 2012 was a microcosm of the military’s transition. I was on a small regional training center with two other Air Force officers, a few Marines, an Army platoon, a Jordanian gendarmerie section and about 30 or so contractors. Within the confines of this little camp, I began to come out. The biggest misnomer about “coming out” was what it actually entailed. Mine wasn’t a formal process. I didn’t unveil a pride flag or make an official announcement. This transition involved little actions…choosing to take a little step, when I wouldn’t have taken that step six months ago. I didn’t censor the pictures that I hung on my wall. When two wedding invitations arrived and my contractor friends asked what I had received, I didn’t hide my mail. Instead, showing them the invitations sparked a conversation about

marriage equality and the Defense of Marriage Act.  A fellow captain and I had numerous discussions about if and when the military would choose to re-examine its various rules and regulations in the wake of the repeal. In the final months of my six year military commitment, I was finally able to be myself. I finally began to speak.

For the first time in almost a decade, I can be myself. I do not have to lie anymore. I can tell stories without censoring pronouns or wondering if the listener is going to over-think the context. Simply put, I no longer have to hide. This change is best explained by an email that I received from a friend during the middle of my deployment. “Do you feel safer?” she asked. Although I have been fortunate to have never questioned my physical safety during my time in the military, I know that many other service members have not had similar experiences. There are many lesbian and gay service members who have chosen not to come out in the wake of DADT’s repeal. Transgender service members are not yet able to serve openly in the military. For me, though, this transition has translated into a daily feeling of relief. I feel relieved that I will not lose my job for being myself, relieved that I can be honest and open, and, above all, relieved that I have been able to reconcile my military self with my civilian self.

In comparing this deployment to my first as a Second Lieutenant, I am struck by the resounding differences between the two experiences. Of course, I am not “brand new” to the Air Force anymore. I have developed my own leadership style over the last six years. But the most striking difference for me was that, in not having a hide, I was better at being me. I was more charismatic. I could do my job better. My troops trusted me more. I could actually see the difference as the deployment progressed. Our camaraderie as a little group actually grew stronger. In transitioning to an environment of open service, I was able to be a stronger, more professional officer than I ever was before.

As I leave the military, I plan to embark on this next adventure in my life. I will ride across the United States on a bicycle with four amazing and resilient veterans. Along the way, we will stop at numerous military installations and meet with hundreds of other veterans, all of whom have their own stories to tell as well. Each individual’s experience will be completely unique, though we will all be united in service to our country. We will work our way from one town to the next, reflecting on both our experiences and those of our fellow service members. Just as my military journey has allowed me to realize that I want to become a minister, I want nothing more than to hear about the experiences of other veterans and the obstacles that they have faced in the wake of returning to the United States.

It’s time for me to be a person with a voice. My challenges as a service member have been just that…my own. In sitting down to write this article, it dawned on me why it has been so difficult to articulate my experiences as a military officer. In living in silence for four years of ROTC and six years in the Reserve, I have never before possessed a voice. LGBTQ service members have served in silence. Now, for the first time ever, many of us can try out our new voices. We can articulate our thoughts as we begin to integrate into the whole. Our voices are part of the military’s dialogue. For me, the Long Road Home Project is the opportunity to do just that…for everyone to be included in the dialogue of supporting veterans as they return home. I am riding for the service that all Airmen, Coast Guardsmen, Marines, Sailors and Soldiers have dedicated to their country. I am riding because, just as I am still learning about what it means to serve as an officer who also happens to be gay, there are hundreds of other service members who are also learning what it is to have a voice as a part of the United States military.

To learn more about the Long Road Home Project or to donate, please visit: http://longroadhomeproject.com/ or http://www.stayclassy.org/events/long-road-home-project/e16367. You can also find more information on the Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/longroadhomeUSA.

  2012 Gay Military Signal