For the ordinary American civilian, any member of our armed forces can be a hero. He can be any hometown boy, who came back from foreign lands having put himself in harm's way to serve our nation. But for our service members, the hero's hero is the corpsman, the medic, who puts himself in harm's way to jump out of a helicopter and run to the side of an injured American hero. The first thing they see is the injured man's eyes that plead, "please, don't let me die!" Its an awesome responsibility that you never forget, one old former corpsman told me.
Chief Hospital Corpsman Jim Donovan was one of those hero's heroes who served our nation for twenty four years. Born in Lexington Kentucky, his pure high pitched bluegrass twang came out loud and clear whenever he got perturbed, sounding like a country violin at a square dance. It was a beautiful sound of the Heartland that always made me think, "you can't get more American than Chief Jim.'
After his service to his nation, he became a church organist, and a piano and organ repairman and builder, and a loving spouse to his partner Dave. He was also a founder of American Veterans for Equal Rights, the nation's LGBT veteran's service organization. He served tirelessly for decades as a dedicated board member and as president multiple times.
His family background is pure Americana. His father, son of Irish immigrants, served in the US Army in WWI, and his eldest brother served in World War II; his dad was a Corporal in the US Army, and served in France. His brother served aboard minesweepers in the US Navy as a Machinists Mate Second Class (E5), acting Chief. Another brother served in the Korean War, also in the Navy, as a Seaman Boatswain's Mate. Like so many other young men, upon graduating from high school, it was the most natural thing for him to follow his brothers into the Navy. According to Jim, the "romance of the Navy" was something he'd dreamed about throughout his youth.
Being gay had nothing to do with it. He hardly knew what the word meant, nor understood who he was at that point in his young life in the early 1960s. It was not until he was in the Navy and stationed at the Navy's largest and oldest of hospitals in Portsmouth VA that he met others like himself that it all became clear and a complete life could be realized. That was the most common experience of patriotic volunteer Vietnam Era vets who discovered themselves while in the service of their country.
As a Corpsman, he experienced an environment in which there was a quiet acceptance of those many service members in that rating with an alternative lifestyle. "One did one's job and no one cared what you did on your own time," he said. Nevertheless, in those days, in the 60s, there was what was know as 'the Spring Roundup' to root out 'undesirable' homosexuals. Hence, it was necessary to watch one's associations, and be on guard at all times to avoid being discovered and dishonorably discharged simply for being who you were. How unfortunate and unnecessary all that was, particularly in a military medical environment where, even then, colleagues were cognizant of the irrelevance of a corpsman's orientation.
After his first five-year tour, Petty Officer Third Class Donovan left the Navy, taking with him his technical training and experience, and began a hospital work career. Yet, although he was doing the same sort of rewarding work, he ultimately missed the camaraderie, Navy life, and sense of service to his country. He returned to continue his military career to conclusion in the Naval Reserve, including field service with the US Marine Corps.
Chief's duty stations included Rota, Spain; Kenitra, Morocco; Yokohama, Japan; Memphis, TN; Portsmouth & Norfolk, VA; Camp Pendleton, CA; and aboard the destroyer USS Strong, and the fast frigate USS Lang. His service was recognized with a Naval Reserve Meritorious Medal and a Navy Reserve Service Medal, among others.
As he rose through the ranks to Chief, over the course of his twenty-four years in the Navy, Hospitalman Donovan took increasing pride and pleasure both in setting an example for others to follow, as well as in being able to be a mentor and counselor to those peers and subordinates needing advice. One of his chosen "duties", though not official, was his efforts to help and advise other gay sailors who seemed to be having difficulty. "I couldn't watch some guy screw up his career just because he was gay."
Following his retirement from the Navy in the early 1990s, Chief Jim was among the early members of Gay Lesbian & Bisexual Veterans of America (GLBVA) which later became American Veterans For Equal Rights (AVER), dedicated to the repeal of DADT and serving the needs of lesbian gay bisexual and transgender veterans. From its inception, the Don't Ask Don't Tell law was recognized as institutionalized homophobia, which would make honest honorable service far more difficult, if not impossible, for patriotic volunteers who happened to be gay.
Chief Jim has served in several positions on the GLBVA/AVER board of directors --viz., Secretary, Vice-president and multiple terms as president, leading the nation's only national LGBT veterans' association as it grew to include more and more chapters in cities across the country. The culmination of efforts was to enable all courageous volunteers to serve their nation in pride, openly as they are.
Steve Loomis, current National President of AVER said, "I first met Chief Donovan at a National Convention when he was President. It was obvious then, he was a strong leader who cared for his men and women as he worked to serve LGBT veterans and strengthen AVER. He worked to protect those he led and it showed to those who met him. He left AVER stronger than he found it and took our LGBT military closer to the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell."
According to Chief Jim, in a 2007 interview, "One of my proudest moments connected with my military service was when as president of AVER, I received an invitation from the Dept. Of The Army inviting me to place a wreath at the tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery as part of the National Memorial Day Ceremony. The fact that this invitation came from the Army shows that we command a certain respect from the Military as well as the Dept. of Veterans Affairs. And as I stood there before this noble shrine, this military Holy of Holies, I reflected on the thousands of unknown GLBT service members who, serving in silence, dedicated their lives to this country and all it stands for. And I humbly dedicated my presence to all of them."
"GLBVA/AVER was organized for the twofold purpose of the abrogation of DADT, and to be an inclusive organization for all veterans who support GLBT issues and concerns. Even after the removal of the ban, there will be a need more than ever for AVER. Our organization continues to grow, and chapters are gearing up to find more ways of supporting GLBT vets who may suddenly come out," said Chief Donovan in his 2007 interview.