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My Right, My Duty, My Honor

by Denny Meyer

In 1968 I left college and volunteered to serve in the US Navy despite being doubly exempt as a college student and being gay.  Everyone thought I was nuts to do it.  My gay friends told me, "Are you crazy!  You can't do that; you're a little faggot!"  My parents told me, "Ziete Mishugah!  (Are you crazy!) you're supposed to be a doctor or a lawyer, not a gunslinger!"  At the time, thousands of young Americans were fleeing to Canada, rather than being drafted and sent to Vietnam.  Some were conscientious objectors, some were cowards, some were somewhere in between.  Thousands of other young Americans lied and said they were gay in order to avoid being drafted and being sent to Vietnam.  I lied and said I was straight so that I could serve.  At that time gay people were simply unwanted in our armed forces.  We were forbidden to serve, period.  If you were found out to be gay, you could be murdered by your fellow service members, or you'd be interrogated and terrorized for months and then be dishonorably discharged in disgrace.

So, why did I do it?  The story goes back to before I was born.  My parents were WWII Holocaust Refugees to America.  My mother arrived at Ellis Island at the height of WWII as an illegal immigrant refugee.  She had no visa, no papers, nothing; she was fleeing genocide in Nazi Germany.  She was allowed to stay, given a green card as a resident alien and five cents to pay for ferry fare across New York's harbor from Ellis Island, past the Statue of Liberty, to start her new life in America, in New York City.  That nickel was the only welfare she ever received for the next sixty years of her life in this country.   My mother, eternally grateful to have been allowed to stay in this country, raised me to believe that "There is nothing more precious than American Freedom." 

Somehow, that message sank in and became the guiding principal of my life.  Now, back to 1968, when I saw all my fellow college students, who took their freedom for granted, protesting the war in Vietnam by burning the American flag.  As a first generation American, who did not take his freedom for granted, seeing my flag being burned enraged me.  And I thought, "Its time to pay my country back for my family's freedom."  That's how it happened.  That's why I did it.  People telling me that I couldn't, that I shouldn't, that I was crazy, only made me more determined.   I sort of knew that I wasn't welcome in our armed forces, but being young and terminally idealistic, I wasn't going to let that stop me.  It didn't stop me, but it wasn't easy.

The first thunder of warning came at the induction center on the first day.  I was one of four thousand young men, at 6 AM. going through the induction day indoctrination, medical exam, and swearing in.  At one point a Petty Officer stood on a table and shouted, "All right mother f....rs, line up! Nuts to Butts!  I want you so close to the man in front of you that he starts to smile, if he laughs back off a little!"  This was 'a brief introduction to homophobic military humor.' Everyone chuckled.  To me it was a thunderclap of warning!  I was scared that if I laughed too hard, everyone would know and I'd be out before I was in.  It was just mildly amusing to all the young men that were there; to me it was a terrifying warning of what to expect.

And then there was 'The Question' by the shrink in the middle of the medical exam.  "Any problem with homosexuality?"  That was IT, the dreaded moment.  So I answered, "um, noooo."  And then the doctor mumbled, "NEXT!" and it was over, simple as that.  After that, we were directed to face forward towards the flag, raise our right hands, and be Sworn In.  Boom!  Too late now, I was in.

More ominous warnings came on the first day in boot camp.  A big bruising crew cut high ranking NCO with a chest full of medals addressed us in a deadly serious tone of voice, with a tinge of curled lip disgust, about how very inappropriate it was if any one of us had somehow squeaked through the screening and were sitting there amongst us as a homosexual!  OMG he was talking about ME!  He warned how very seriously bad it would be for me if I didn't go quietly to my Drill Instructor, by the end of the day, and admit the truth, at which point I would be quickly and quietly whisked away and sent home.  I could feel my heart in my throat!  But I just kept my mouth shut, kept a poker face, and pretended that like everyone else, it didn't concern me.  I made it through the horror of boot camp and I served honorably for ten years!

In boot camp, at that time, the training technique involved insulting recruits and putting their dignity through a meat grinder.  Every day every one of us was called "a faggot."  What got me through was thinking, "well, if all these southern straight boys can take that, I guess I can too."  So, I just let it slide off my back like water off a duck.  There may have been one or two other gay men in our barracks of 100; but like me, they maintained deep silent secrecy.  I had to be a regular recruit, marching on my boots in sync and lustily singing the crude cadence call songs even if the words were about killing me.

I was assigned to an aircraft carrier.  I'd never seen an aircraft carrier before.  It was humongous, towering 27 levels up and five football fields long!  I never got over the thrill of living and working on that monster of the sea.  The bad news was that for the first six months living and working aboard the ship, I was exposed to toxic dust daily as the massive repairs continued.  Nearly 30 years later I developed near fatal cancer.

After that, I served in a Helicopter Squadron Headquarters where 'readiness training' required jumping out of helicopter gun ships from about 20 feet up, no rope, nothing, jump and land on your boots.  I loved it; but nearly forty years later I have excruciatingly painful spinal degeneration and walk slowly with a cane.  Jumping out of a helicopter gun ship, without screaming, was the bravest thing I ever did.

Aboard ship, I was a double invisible minority.  No one could look at me and tell that I was gay; it wasn't like being black.  All I had to do was be cool, and never ever make a mistake when talking about 'girlfriends' who were boyfriends.  Every single day that I served, for ten years, I had to listen to casual violent remarks and crude homophobic jokes about 'faggots being killed.'  Whoever was speaking had no idea that the guy he was talking about was standing right next to him.  I couldn't just stand there silently, I had to laugh crudely along with everyone else, least someone noticed my displeasure and asked what the hell my problem was.  Every single day!  It hurt, and it was scary.  I got used to it, I knew what to do.  But if you think that didn't cause hypervigilant PTSD, well it did.  If anyone found out or even suspected, you'd be killed.  In the Army in Vietnam, you'd be shot in the back and never even know what hit you.  An enemy sniper would be blamed and that was that.  In the Navy, they'd grab you in the middle of the night and throw you overboard, and you'd drown alone in the dark in the middle of the night in the middle of the ocean.  No one would notice that you were missing until morning muster, many hours later and hundreds of miles away.  When that happened, they'd turn the ship around and start searching.  There was no expectation or possibility of finding you, it was just a ritual.  A week or so later a military sedan would pull up to your parent's house and a uniformed sergeant and a lieutenant would knock on your parent's door.  Before they said a word your mother would burst into tears and collapse; everyone knew what a visit like that was all about.  If you'd been in the Army, a month or so later your body would arrive in a box and there could be a proper funeral during which a lieutenant holding a folded flag would kneel in front of your seated weeping mother and say, "Please accept this flag as a symbol of a grateful nation....."  But, if you'd been tossed overboard in the Navy, there was no body and no funeral.  A very nice official bureaucratic letter would arrive in the mail along with a folded frameable flag and that was that.  They would never be told how or why you were killed.  The military didn't do that.  I knew a guy in the Navy, a Yeoman, whose job it was to make up and compose letters to families about their loved ones having been 'Killed in Action.'  Just as well, I suppose, considering that most families didn't know their son's secret.  Imagine their being told, "your son was murdered because he was a homosexual...."  WHAT!

My other minority status was that I'm Jewish.  So, often enough, there were good-natured good-old-boy discriminatory remarks about 'the Jew boy!'  It was one more thing to have to deal with.  I was once 'loaned' to an Admiral for three days to type up his war-games reports.  When we were done, he came into my little office, and drawled in a deep southern accent, "Meyer, you're pretty good..... for a Jew!"  I knew he meant well and was trying to complement me, but his disgusting prejudice was just as blatant as if he'd used the N word to a Black Petty Officer.  I had to just stand there in silence, you don't talk back to an Admiral!  Forty years later, I've never forgotten that insult.

There were some terrifying close calls.  There was a common crude horsing around practice at the time, where a sailor would grab another's butt and the two would fall to the floor and wrestle while thirty of their mates stood around them laughing and shouting crude cat calls.  It was a way of letting off steam in a crude sort of way.  Anyone who mistakenly mistook it for homoeroticism would be killed.  So, I avoided that 'grab-assing,' at all cost least I somehow seemed to be enjoying it.  So, if my ass were grabbed, and it was, I'd turn around angrily and bounce the offender's head against the bulkhead and say, "I don't go for that shit!"  So, as an inadvertant result, everyone thought I was the straightest guy around because I wouldn't even fool around for a joke.  During a homophobic witch hunt, the officers called me in one day and said, "Meyer, you're the only one we can be sure of; will you help us find these faggots so we can get rid of them."  I nearly fell over in horror.  How tragic that they thought I was their straightest crewman.  I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.  But, I simply pretended to be a dumb sailor and said, "Sir, I dunno nothin 'bout dat."  And then they said just what I wanted to hear, "Get out of here, Meyer!"  Terrifying!  I was the one they were looking for!

During a routine investigation for my security clearance, I was called away from my desk by two NCIS agents who sat me down in an office and said, "Meyer, as you know we're conducting a routine investigation for your clearance, and we received information that you are a ......"  Between that word and the next, I died of horror, realizing that I'd been found out and that I was doomed.  I wanted to vomit.  Without pause, of course, he finished the sentence, "...that you are a user of marijuana."  I wanted to jump up, laugh, clap my hands and shout, "OH IS THAT ALL!"  But, I knew better and simply managed to look perplexed.  Or my horror was mistaken for looking perplexed.  It was just a game they played to see if anyone would crack and admit to using marijuana.  By accident, I passed the test.  I wanted to run out of there to a restroom and vomit.  But, I managed to stay calm until they let me go.  I was badly rattled.  Forty years later, I still break out on a terrified sweat remembering that moment.  My heart didn't stop pounding for a week.

This was the life of a gay patriot serving in silence.  I really loved the Navy, but after four years of living in constant terror of being caught or being killed because of who I am, I didn't reenlist.  I walked away, a free man, and  let my hair grow down to my shoulders.  I started looking for a job.   I got the one job where you had to be straight and a veteran to be hired.  I became a DAC, a Department of the Army Civilian administering Army Reserve units.  Once I was on the job, it was decided that these civilian administrators ought to be members of the unit they administered, in case the reserves were ever activated.  So, I was back in uniform, green instead of blue.  Under the discriminatory policy of the era, if you were found out, as a civilian or a reservist, you were interrogated and fired.  You could not be gay and be a part of the military.  The policy was so deadly discriminatory that no one could so much as dare to arch a friendly eyebrow at anyone.  We all had 'gaydar,' we could tell who was gay, but you had to pretend such a thing didn't exist.  Tragic.  Even talking about not talking about it was forbidden.  Tragic.

The Army was far more institutionally prejudiced than the Navy.  There was racial, religious, and ethnic discrimination non stop.  I had advanced to the rank of Sgt First Class; but that didn't stop a Warrant Officer CW4 from amusing himself by coming up to my desk, clicking his heels Nazi style, and giving me a straight-arm Nazi salute.  He couldn't stop laughing.  I got up and went into the commander's office and shut the door.  The commander was a Black Colonel; I told him what had happened, he wasn't amused.  The Warrant Officer's long career ended fifteen minutes later; but i should not have had to deal with it.  Keeping my sexual orientation secret was much more difficult in the Army Reserve.  I had a long term life companion by that time, and I got very sick of looking over my shoulder in supermarkets, worried that a unit member might see me shopping with the man I loved.  After ten years of total service, I left the military in 1978 for the second and final time, just because I was gay, just to avoid the ongoing discrimination and terror of being caught.

Here's the thing, I'd do it all over again if I could, despite everything!  I remain proud as hell to have served my country.  I have no regrets.

So, what happens now?  Today, gay and lesbian patriots are volunteering and serving openly and  honorably.  Although the Pentagon has gone to great lengths to ensure a safe and respectful environment, there is endless discrimination down the chain of command by those whose bigotry enables them to believe that they can violate the rights of those serving under them.

Transgender service members, however, must still serve in silence, hiding who they are due to vague and conflicting policies; suffering under a cloud of constant fear.  A very few Transgender patriots who meet the criteria, have stepped forward and enlisted openly as who they are.  But the stress of enduring training and serving under a spotlight of suspicion must be overwhelming.  Those few demonstrate what true courage is all about.  Transgender service academy graduates slated to become officers, on the other hand, have flat out been denied commissions.  The fear among bigoted administration and elected officials is that they could become high ranking officers demonstrating their integrity and ability to lead. 

Years too late for those with that fear, we already have gay and lesbian Generals and Admirals, both male and female, retired and still serving.  And there are countless gay and lesbian veterans, including myself, who became senior NCOs and led troops during long honorable military careers.  And in fact there are, also, sterling retired high ranking Transgender veterans both officer and enlisted who are already an inspiration to our nation.

We have already demonstrated our ability to serve and lead.  Our task now is to ensure our right to do so.

-Denny Meyer, fmr USN, Sgt First Class USAR

2018 GayMilitarySignal