Closeted and under fire

After a year of fighting in Iraq, an anonymous gay soldier gives Advocate readers a remarkably intimate account of what it’s like being a gay officer in a war zone

BY

June 05 2005 11:00 PM ET

When I was
deployed to Iraq in the spring of 2004, I knew of no other
gay soldiers in my division. I was worried it would be
one long, lonely, frustrating tour of duty, devoid of
the relatively regular gay civilian contact that keeps
me sane when at my home station. But as an officer in
a combat arms branch of the United States Army, I was
prepared to execute the duties I had sworn to execute,
whatever they might be and wherever that might take me.
The first five months of the deployment were
miserable and downright depressing. I couldn’t
even utter the word “gay” in a meaningful
conversation: The phones provided to the soldiers for morale
purposes lacked privacy—anyone sitting next to
me, or even three phones down, could overhear any
explicit acknowledgment of my homosexuality. I was
relegated to electronic and paper correspondence for links
to anything gay. I came very close to outing myself,
leaving the Army, and ending the painful emotional
isolation. Then at the end of the fifth month of the
deployment, on a dare from one of the straight soldiers (who
suspected I was gay), another soldier in my
450-soldier battalion unit—who, apparently,
everyone knows is gay—approached me. This soldier
introduced me to “the group”: five or
six totally out gay men and two or three who are gay
but haven’t yet fully accepted it. Some of these men,
like the one who was dared, are out to just about
everyone in the unit. Others are out to just their
close friends. Some are out to no one outside the group.
Just being able to talk to other gay soldiers,
who could understand my frustrations, had a miraculous
effect on my mental health. The burdens of silence
were still there, but I could at least sneak in a casual, if
covert, conversation on gay-related topics. These moments
made life bearable over the course of the next seven
months. I ended up coming out to my company commander,
to my second in charge in the office, and to a handful
of other friends in the unit, all of whom are 100% supportive.
Despite being out to a dozen or so soldiers, I
refuse to reveal the names of the unit’s other
gay soldiers to the ones to whom I have come out, for
the other gay soldiers’ privacy. This, naturally,
means that a lot of my conversations and bantering
gossip about what is going on around post are
off-limits to my friends around the office. My second in
command takes this rather personally, stating on
numerous occasions that he is frustrated that I
won’t trust him—an odd statement from a guy
who is neither shy nor ashamed of his orientation. The
other friends and colleagues I am out to tiptoe around
the issue of who else is gay, afraid of violating
policy too blatantly. My company commander, however, did
indicate I should talk to one of his other soldiers, whom he
(correctly) suspected of being gay and in need of a
nonhostile, chaplainlike ear to talk to. He was
concerned about the deployment stresses this soldier was
having to bear that are unique to suspected homosexuals.
There is plenty of generic antigay harassment.
The flippant “that’s gay” is
fairly common, as are derisive offhand remarks about
rainbows and anal sex. But generally, I get the
feeling that these remarks are more like a left-handed
compliment—no great insult or animosity is intended
toward the “left-handers,” but the
phrase continues to be a banal legacy of past discrimination.
The animus exists and arises here and there in
one comment or another, but in my experience, the vast
bulk of the 30-and-under crowd—which makes up
over 80% of the unit—couldn’t care less about
“don’t ask, don’t tell”
and doesn’t see any reason for the policy to begin
with. They’ve all worked with gay men and
lesbians before. They went to high school with us, are
friends with us, have us in their own families, and
knowingly work with us here in Iraq.
Here in Iraq security is provided by qualified
machine gunners—critical tasks performed by
all, gay or straight, and appreciated by all, gay or
straight. When I plan convoys I look for expert gunners and
experienced drivers—they are the ones who will
keep me and my soldiers alive when their skills are
needed most. Almost universally, no one has issues with
those who are gay; their concerns, like mine, lie solely
with the quality of the job being done, and with
teamwork—which implies trust, which in turn
provides security.
And this nonchalance shows in the experiences
that we as a unit have shared: dodging rocket and
mortar attacks, taking shelter in concrete bunkers,
and adhering to ridiculous uniform policies while on patrol
and in combat. Everyone jokes about these experiences,
gay or straight. And we look back collectively, on our
collective experience, and say, “Damn,
I’m glad that’s over.”
No one wants to be in the line of fire, but I
accept that it is my job and my duty. I do it because
I said I would—because I signed on the dotted
line and raised my right hand and swore to obey the orders
of the president of the United States. But it drives
me nuts to watch politicians and senior leaders
denigrate my contributions and those of my fellow gay
and lesbian soldiers. We work just as hard as everyone else,
but under a set of damaging emotional burdens that others do
not bear.
It took all I had to make it through those first
five months, and I cannot imagine how difficult it
would have gotten if I had not found others to share
with. I cannot begin to fathom the despair of gay and
lesbian soldiers who don’t have friends. They are
isolated and alone, serving their country in the
wastelands of Iraq.
I just thank my lucky stars that I got out
alive, and I keep those who did not make it in my
heart and mind. Hopefully, one day soon, I’ll be
able to fully enjoy the freedoms I’ve provided to
others—by serving my country openly and
honestly.

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