And then came Vietnam.....
When was the last time that you dared to smile at an old gay grumpy Vietnam Vet? One of my favorite vet baseball caps says, "Dysfunctional Vietnam Veteran, leave alone." Its one of those funny but sad statements of alternate reality. Vietnam vets, gay and straight, never got anything. People cursed them when they came home. Many had PTSD, but that diagnoses didn't exist back then. So, our vets had to suck it up and do the best that they could, on their own without group therapy, without legal drugs to calm their nerves, and without the thanks of an ungrateful nation.
Straight and gay vets alike had suffered the horrors of Napalm, Agent Orange, Huey jumping, MPCs, fire, and death all around them. In addition to all that, gay vets had suffered the very real possibility of being fragged, shot in the back by their own fellow service members, because of who they were. "Serving in Silence" meant having to hear homophobic jokes and comments all day every day, and not being able to dare say a word about it, and even having to laugh along with every one else, least someone should think you were 'one of them.'
While World War II's carefully edited movie-house newsreels inspired many to volunteer to go off to glorious war; the first televised war, in Vietnam, inspired many to run like hell away from the horrors of the reality of war as bluntly and violently shown on TV. Even more Americans were inspired to stay out of uniform, during Vietnam, by the huge anti-war movement of the 1960s. Yet, for many, there was little choice; they were drafted and had their civilian lives and identity ripped away by the brutality of boot camp in those days. It actually took quite a bit of courage to leave one's comfortable suburban American life behind and become a fugitive draft dodger by running away to foreign Canada. Still, the thought of being riddled with machine gun fire while jumping out of a hovering Huey helicopter in a hostile Vietnamese jungle far from home was enough to scare the piss out of a lot of young Americans. Some actually left out of moral indignation about war; but many really ran off simply because they were scared.
And then there were those who lied about being gay, both those who were and those who weren't. A lot of young straight guys lied and said they were gay to avoid the draft and going to Vietnam. Most of them didn't have a clue about how to 'act gay,' but it didn't matter because the people they were lying to didn't have a clue either. At the same time, there were a lot of gay patriots who actually lied and said they were straight -so that they could serve! Imagine the irony! Why did we do it?
Why did gay folks volunteer to serve in Vietnam despite being unwelcome? Simple, some of us were raised to be patriots. Some of us were children of proud World War II Veterans. Some of us, myself included, were children of World War II refugees who came to America for sanctuary. We were raised, from the day we learned to talk, to understand that, "There is nothing more precious than American Freedom!" We gay and lesbian Vietnam Era veterans came out, at least to ourselves, in our mid teens, in the early to mid 1960s, before the Stonewall Revolution of 1969. We knew who and what we were by the time we were 15 to 17 years old. We were out to ourselves and a few friends, and in mid to large cities we sometimes had someplace to go and hang out; but otherwise it was "in the closet" as a normal way of life. Perhaps because we knew we were different and discriminated against, some of us never took our American freedom for granted. While our straight peers protested, burned American flags, lied about being gay, and ran away to Canada, some of us patriots thought, "Its time to pay my country back for my family's freedom." It may sound corny; but at the time, for us young gay patriots, the impulse to volunteer was the most deadly serious decision we'd ever done in our short lives. Any young person, throughout human history, straight or gay, really hasn't got a clue in hell about what they are getting into when they sign up to serve. You are just too young and inexperienced to understand that you can get blown to bloody bits, permanently. But, idealistically or not, we did it; and some of us, most of us, remain proud as hell about it to this day.
So, the Vietnam Era military experience for young folks, gay and straight, began with the brutality of boot camp. It was designed to shock you out of your civilian individualist mentality and turn you into some semblance of a Soldier, Sailor, Marine, or Airman. The joke was that boot camp "builds character." For those who survived, it definitely did. Remarkably, most survived just fine and grew up fast during the experience; even if it was something you remember for the rest of your life as something you didn't like at all and wish you'd never gone through. For one thing, in those days, drill instructors could curse at you, humiliate you, say unforgivably insulting things about your relationship to you mother and your parent's relationship at the time your were born, and in general insult your sexual orientation. They called absolutely everyone 'a faggot.' I thought, "well, if the straight boys can take that, I guess I can too." That sounds crudely funny; but it wasn't, it was cold reality. That was 45 years ago, at the height of the war in Vietnam. They are not allowed to talk that way to recruits anymore; at least they are not supposed to.
For straight kids, it must have been infuriatingly offensive. For a secretly gay recruit, it was terrifying! You had to keep reminding yourself, "That SOB is talking that way to everyone, not just me." For the first time in their lives, gay recruits found themselves sharing an open bay barracks and open bay shower room with up to one hundred other sweaty young men. If you were gay and you didn't have much strength of character when you started boot camp, you learned fortitude very quickly. And that, for many of us, was what it was all about. You couldn't tell anyone what you were going through as a gay kid, not your parents back in those days; not your gay friends whom you left behind -because they thought you were nuts in the first place to sign up; and of course certainly not your new straight peers who would kill you in a moment if they even thought you were gay. So, in my case and in so many others, the thought throughout was, "I'm doing this to prove to myself, and no one else, that I can do this!" And when you succeeded and walked out of those beastial base gates on graduation day, you had the most incredible sense of self affirmation ever. Your chest was puffed out in pride, your jaw was square, and you knew, perhaps for the first time, that you were just as good as everyone else around you. Because up to that moment, in those days, there was no such thing as Gay Pride, it had not yet been invented as a concept. On the contrary, American society taught you every day of your life that, as a queer, you were less than human and not worthy.
Even your gay friends taught you that kind of low self esteem. When I first told my gay friends that I was volunteering to serve in America's armed forces, they looked at me as if I were an idiot, and told me, "You can't do that; you're a little Faggot!" It wasn't particularly encouraging. But, I really wanted to serve, even if I didn't have a clue in hell what I was getting myself into. So, I said, "Watch me!" I served for ten years in two services and left very honorably as a Sgt First Class. I proved what I could do, at least to myself; and to my mom who had come here as a penniless, undocumented, war refugee and was so proud of her American son's service.
First, I served on an aircraft carrier. My sleeping rack was two feet below the flight deck in a compartment for 200 men stacked head to toe five bunks high. It was directly underneath the arresting gear -the tail hook cable assembly that screeched and grated at hundreds of decibels all day and night a moment after landing gear bumped the deck right over my head. The location of my bunk was where my predecessor was burned to death when burning jet fuel poured through the deck during the catastrophic Forrestal Fire in 1967. On the one hand, it was pure hell. On the other hand, it was an incredibly great adventure! I was a part of a real warship at sea! Me, "a little faggot," secretly serving his nation aboard a throbbing powerfully armed behemoth plowing across the waves at 40 knots. Frankly, I loved it! Part of what kept me going was the determination to someday rise to a rank where I wouldn't have to take orders anymore from the assholes who were my superiors; I knew that I'd be a better leader than they ever could be. And I was, I did that.
Later, I had several shore duty assignments, including in a helicopter squadron headquarters working for officers who were all helicopter cowboys who lived to fly. I had my own glorious greasy flight suit! After the Navy, I served even longer in specialized Army Reserve units where I rose to the rank of Sgt First Class. I had a lot of responsibility and respect. It was what I had striven for since my first miserable days of service. I was proud as hell. But, even then, in the late 1970s, as gay rights rose right outside the base gates, I had to swallow discrimination every single day of my service in silence. I had to lead a double life, keeping secret the existence of my lifetime companion who had no right to any benefits nor any acknowledgement of our shared sacrifice. If anything happened to me on duty, he would not be told nor given the slightest thanks or care, nothing. So, halfway trough a quite successful military career, I left, simply not reenlisting yet again. A Sgt First Class didn't do that; my superiors couldn't understand why I was doing that. I didn't tell them. I regret not serving a full 20 years to this day in my old age. But, I don't regret a moment of my decade of service. I'd do it all again. I only wish I could have done it in Pride of who I am both as a patriot and as a gay American.
I'm no hero. For those who were there, the heroes are the ones who didn't come home. I'm simply a patriot who volunteered at the height of the war in Vietnam. I'm disabled with spinal degeneration because of an injury during hand to hand combat training, and because 'readiness training' included constantly jumping out of Huey helicopters from about 15 feet up, loaded with gear, and landing gloriously on my boots. I had cancer from a year of breathing in toxic dust on the ship, made up of scraped grey lead paint, asbestos that lined the entire interior piping network, residual agent orange efluvience left over from Blue Water ops, and jet fuel fumes; not to mention the great tasting powdered egg stuff made of God-knows-what, that came in giant cardboard barrels.
I got my first medal the day I walked out of boot camp, A National Defense Service Medal, NDSM, a freebee given for having signed up. Well, you're kind of pumped up right after boot camp; so I pinned it on my dress uniform and went home. My daddy was a WWII Holocaust refugee; and his eyes nearly popped out of his head when he spotted that medal pinned to my puffed out chest. "Ach! You heff a medal already!" he exclaimed. As far as he was concerned, I must have gotten it for having single handedly taken out an entire German Panzer division. It was then that I realized that the medal wasn't for me, it was for parents. Fair enough. I got my second medal ten years later, when I honorably left the service as a Sgt. First Class. It was a freebee Good Conduct Medal, GCM, given for never having been caught. That actually took a lot of effort, and dumb luck. Fair enough.
Now, 45 years later, I'm a grumpy old gay vet. The VA hospitals are full of grumpy old Vietnam/Era vets hobbling about with old war ailments and ailments of old age. As young men in the late 1960s, they served, came back and used their GI benefits to go back to school, started careers, and worked hard for decades until they were 'downsized' when the economy dived. Our own gay vets, additionally, stood on the streets on the front lines of our early rights revolution in the 1970s bravely being tear gassed and photographed while demanding the freedom they fought for. In the 1980s they saw all their friends and lovers die of AIDS, one after another, until they were left to grow old alone. So, some of us are grumpy, and still demanding equality.
My friend, AF TechSgt Leonard Matlovich was a genuine gay Vietnam hero. He came out publicly in 1974 and was consequently discharged after 12 years of honorable service. Talk about courage! He was what gay patriots are made of. In Vietnam, he got a Bronze Star for Valor and a Purple Heart for being shot. Talk about courage! He didn't live to see DADT repealed due to the movement he began. So, you can't hug him. But, you can visit his grave at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington DC, put a flower on his tombstone, and spend a few silent moments contemplating courage. You can read on his tombstone what he himself wrote: "A Gay Vietnam Veteran; When I was in the Military, they gave me a medal for killing two men, and a discharge for loving one."