In the post Vietnam Era, America entered a unique period of world military history; we became one off the few nations on Earth that no longer required its citizens to serve in its armed forces. The draft ended in 1973. After that, after nervously filling out some form to 'register' at the age of 18, young Americans could proceed through the rest of their lives without ever having to think or worry about military service. Everyone who served, after that time, was a volunteer. After Vietnam, the nation was war weary and war wary. The national mindset and theme song was, Give Peace A Chance (John Lennon, Yoko Ono). Unfortunately, the rest of the world didn't change; genocide, invasions, and warmongering persisted unabated. As a large superpower, America still needed a sizable, highly trained, battle ready military to protect and defend freedom. Fortunately, we are a large and diverse country with more than enough young people willing to volunteer to serve, including those who themselves did not always get the benefit of full American freedom from discrimination and oppression. Perhaps because we knew we were different and discriminated against, some of us never took our American freedom for granted. That included African Americans, Hispanic and Asian Americans, Gay Americans, and so many others who took it upon themselves to volunteer to put themselves in harms way by serving in our armed forces. Some sought education and economic opportunity because they were poor, some were patriots, many were both.
Some gay and transgender volunteers, who served full military careers during this era and are now retiring, saw their service spanning the pre-DADT, DADT, and post DADT eras. At the time that they volunteered to join, before DADT, if you were suspected of being gay you would be investigated, interrogated, and terrorized for months until you were ultimately dishonorably discharged in disgrace. In a way, it was easier to 'serve in silence' before DADT, because the general assumption was that we weren't serving, no one expected us to exist in their midst. During DADT, however, it was understood that gay people could, in fact, serve so long as they didn't tell anyone that they were gay. So, in that era everyone was suspect, everyone was looking to ferret out who was gay, to find out who among them was 'one of them.' Just being tidy and intelligent was enough to be under constant suspicion. And anyone could rat on you and cause your career to come to a sudden end. Many served openly among their peers who affirmed and valued them. But every unit had at least one asshole bigot who had such low self esteem that he could not tolerate nor respect those of a different race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. And so a reign of terror ensued for seventeen years during which the biggest loosers had the power to report the proudest patriots and have them removed.
After the repeal of DADT, it is now the bigots who do not deserve to wear an American uniform. Equality is now the norm. But for those whose careers have spanned that era, its a bitter victory because of the bigotry they had to endure to serve their county.
This roughly 30+ year period of change and transition saw service by those born when Kennedy was President, and by Millennials who patriotically volunteered to serve after 911. The older group were babies when President John F. Kennedy intoned, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country!" But, those words inspired at least two generations of patriots. For those youngsters just coming of age in September of 2001, those words might have been something they heard about in middle school history classes. Our heroes of this era span a wide range including AVER President LTC Steve Loomis who retired in 1997, Sgt. Danny Ingram who was one of the first people discharged under DADT in 1994, Sgt. Eric Alva who was the first American service member injured during the first days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Major Alan Rogers killed by an IED in Iraq, among so many others.
Even after having served in silence for a decade during and after Vietnam, I still see those who volunteered in the era of DADT and Middle East conflicts as incredibly courageous. In earlier eras, it was relatively easy to 'pass for straight.' All you had to do was suffer the loneliness and silence of your service, resolute in your patriotism for as long as you could bear the burden, if you weren't caught and killed or dishonorably discharged. During the DADT era, however, there was no place to hide and no inclination to do so. Many proud patriotic gay and lesbian volunteers of the era had never been 'in the closet,' nor had any idea what and where the closet was. Even 'coming out' was outmoded for many who had been accepted and affirmed for who they were by their parents and peers for as long as they could remember. And so it was, while serving, for heroes like PFC Andrew Wilfahrt who served openly and died in combat in OEF in Afghanistan. But, it wasn't all freedom and sacrifice. There were still ignorant bullies and bigots like the ones who beat PFC Barry Winchell to death in their barracks at Ft. Campbell in 1999 because they thought he was gay. He wasn't; he was the 'significant other' of a transgender woman (Calpernia Addams who was also a Navy veteran). Its been a long and deadly road for our heroes.
We've come a long way on a very hard road paved with the patriotism and sacrifices of heroes. But, don't be complacent and think its all over and done now; be careful who you vote for.