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Staying on course

by

Lee Reinhart


Editor’s note:  What follows is one man’s personal first-hand narrative of his reenlistment and deployment experience, following the repeal of DADT, after having been discharged for being gay.  As anyone who has ever served knows, nothing is ever as simple and rewarding as one might have hoped or dreamed, when it comes to serving in uniform.  No matter how patriotic and gung-ho you might be, the reality is still gritty, full of hurry-up-and-wait, frustrating, dangerous, and discriminatory.  Having served before, he kind of knew what he was getting into; but he told me that he did it in order to “finish what I started when I first volunteered,” and to do it for those others who had been discharged due to DADT, who could not get back in due to age, health and other criteria.  Lee is my kind of Gay Hero.  He sacrificed his own personal comfort and freedom to serve his country after 911, and to honor all those LGBT patriots who could no longer serve.

There I was, participating in a fire drill onboard USCGC Hamilton when a female crew member informed me that I was being investigated for being gay.  It was spring 2002 just 3 months after returning to active duty following that horrible day in our nation’s history.  By late summer I was discharged under DADT, my career was over.  I was in complete shock, for you see, for me, I had previously served in the Navy from 1995-99 and was able to serve openly to my shipmates, but not to my superiors; and I never had any problems serving openly to my peers, and I wanted nothing more then to do my part once again after 911.

A few years would pass, but when I arrived in Chicago in 2006 a spark was lit and thus began years of phone calling, town hall meetings, petition drives and visits to DC.  The day that the President signed the repeal of DADT, there I was in the same room with the President of the United States, not knowing for sure if I would ever return to wearing the uniform myself, but I knew it was the right thing for those currently in uniform and those coming into the service for the very first time.  Not knowing if I would succeed didn’t stop me from pursuing getting back in.

I wanted nothing more than to return to military life.  The day it finally happened, it could not have been any better.  Relatives, friends, politicians and military personal all came to witness the ‘first’ Illinoisan to re-enlist after DADT repeal.  I knew the chances were high, but didn’t know how soon, but within the first year of being back in I was preparing for a deployment to Afghanistan.

I was told that I would go for six months with the option to stay a year.  However, I had to decide if I wanted to stay a year before I was “boots on the ground” meaning before we arrived in Afghanistan.  I volunteered to do so.

The night we touched down in Afghanistan it was cold and rainy at 12 AM.  The headaches, long waits and minimal sleep, when it came to the traveling process, was a preview to what my traveling experience would be for the next 12 months. There was never an easy, smooth, or on time flight and it stayed that way with two exceptions.  Once, when I got lucky and flew from Kabul to Kandahar on a Commandant’s Marine Jet, and when I was medevaced out of Afghanistan to Qatar.  I had a love for flying before this past year, but I think I will stay out of the skies for some time now.

The majority of my time was spent in Kandahar , Afghanistan also known as KAF.  Unlike smaller bases throughout Afghanistan, Kandahar had a weekly social group of LGBT members.  It was quite different from past deployments in the sense that we all were in uniform on the boardwalk proudly socializing with LGBT enlisted, officers and civilian workers alike.

Soon after arriving we began talks about having the first ever gay pride event on KAF.  We decided on a panel of four with me being one of the feature speakers.  As planning begun we ran into a few problems.  First was the flyer we chose that said “Afghanistan pride,” resulting in the fear that the locals would not like their country’s name associated with the word 'pride' so “Afghanistan” was removed.  Next came getting a unit to sponsor us, which was needed to be able to do the event, which took some time.

The day of the event we prepared the hall and no one would give us an American flag to put on stage with us.  So my unit (which was a civilian organization) brought the American flag to the event.  Once there, the sponsoring unit said it would be best not to have the flag up there with us.  So we realized it wasn’t about not finding a flag, but that the sponsoring unit didn’t want us to have one.

I wanted to make a statement and have my unhappiness regarding the flag known, but we decided to move forward with the event.  Besides the two wrinkles, it was attended by over a 100 people, enlisted, officers and civilians.  I had officers, civilians and enlisted members of my own unit attend.  However, one of my superiors said he could not come and support me due to his beliefs.  He stated that he was glad to see my passion and respected and supported me to do the event but would not support me by attending.  Little did I know how this may have affected the remaining deployment when it came to potential career opportunities.

Summer 2013 in Afghanistan was hot, long and stressful.  Getting adjusted to working with different branches of service, plus civilian workers, was taking a toll on me; and the lack of leadership and support took its toll as well.   On July 4th,  I had a mini breakdown; and could not see lasting until March 2014.  Yet I pushed through and continued to follow orders, complete tasks assigned, and took on greater responsibilities throughout the summer in hopes of advancing my career.  But for whatever reason, no future career opportunities were offered.

In late August as I was sitting in an office and went to get up, I had a sudden pain in my stomach.  It was determined that I had umbilical hernia and I was soon flown to Qatar for surgery where I would remain until early October 2013.

Once I returned to Afghanistan; many of the positions I had when I left were changed or given to others.  So, I was tasked to go on more off-base missions, much like most of my co-workers had been doing the entire deployment.  At first I was disgusted and angry that I had lost the positions I had worked so hard for, but soon realized that the missions were all about ‘why we were there,’ and thus gave me a genuine sense of doing the job I had volunteered to do when I reenlisted.

By December I had given up on any hope that I could use the deployment as a spring board to career advancement.  The lack of support and limitations possibly due to some of my superiors’ personal reasons were not in my favor.  So I decided to carry on doing the missions I was assigned, go on R n R in late December and come back and finish the deployment as strong as I could.

In late December I returned home to Chicago for 15 days R n R.  I was happy to surprise my family by arriving a day earlier than planned.  I was able to see the Harley Davidson bike I had purchased through the military exchange program.  I tell folks it was my gift to myself for doing a year of active deployment, considering I don’t even know how to ride a motorcycle.  

Returning to Afghanistan from R n R was much harder then returning from Qatar after my surgery in the fall.  What kept me going was that I knew once I got back in mid-January, I would only have about a month and half left and then it would be all over for good.  My final month and half went fairly quickly and little stress due to having tons of people and little work for us to do. 

The journey home took longer then I wanted it to, but eventually it came to an end.  Overall, I have no regrets for reenlisting and no regrets on volunteering for the second six months of deployment in Afghanistan.  Would I do a year again if ever called back up to active duty?  Most likely not.  Will I reenlist in the reserves when my contract is up in 2015?  That is still to be determined.  The military has adapted well to the repeal of DADT but (my opinion and my experience ) those in leadership still have and can use their personal issues with LGBT members to affect our careers.  Much to think about what direction to go next.

I need to express here that the lower ranks seem to have adapted well to DADT repeal and have carried out their missions accordingly; but I personally feel those in leadership positions who have personal issues with lgbt members can use that to harm a members' future opportunities, or I perceive that is what is happening.

2014 GayMilitarySignal