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In 2016, coming out is still hard work. Back in 2000 when I was serving in the U.S. Army under "don't ask, don't tell," I had a tough time coming out to my mother, and her lack of acceptance at the time drove me to the brink of a suicide attempt.
Closets, Combat and Coming Out isn't just a memoir about a gay soldier facing the prospect of war, it's also a story about a young gay man trying to find himself. I've spoken openly about this dark period in my life, and I share it with you today in the hopes that anyone struggling with similar thoughts finds the help that they need.
On this fifth anniversary of the implementation of DADT repeal, I chose to share this story because I know it reflects the inner struggles of thousands of soldiers who had to serve under the discriminatory law.
I opened the door to the barracks room slowly and discreetly, and picked up the phone to dial my mother. I wasn't sure why I felt the need to provide a teaser to a conversation that we wouldn't be having for two months, but I could feel a strong sense of relief that had come over me ever since I admitted it to myself. I am gay. I like guys. I heard her warm, yet gravelly voice on the other end. She had obviously been smoking.
"Hello?" She said.
"Hey mom, it's me. How you doing?"
"Fine, and you?"
"I'm OK. What are you up to?"
"Just driving, Robert. What's up?"
"Um, nothing." I could feel my throat begin to close up. I suddenly became tense and nervous, and I was struggling to find the words to say.
"So why are you calling me, Robert? I'm on the road driving." Husband number three lived in North Carolina. He worked for a truck driving company that delivered loads of various products all across the country. She'd moved down my senior year of high school and embarked on a career in driving, leaving me to live with paternal grandparents for the remainder of my time.
"Um, ok. You know I'm coming back home for Christmas, right?"
"Yes Robert, I know."
"Well there was something that I wanted to talk to you about."
There was a long, uncomfortable stream of absolute silence. I could hear the wind whipping in the background from the cracked window of her 18-wheeler. I wondered what city she was driving to this time, what the scenery was like wherever she was, anything to fill the silence. After what seemed like forever, she continued.
"What is it? You're not gay are you?"
The words hit me like a well-timed punch to the gut. My knees buckled a little bit and I stumbled onto the corner of my bed, shocked.
"Well, what if I was?" I said in a quiet, little boy voice.
"Robert you know that's not allowed in the Army," she said.
"You also know that's not God's plan."
Her voice was cold and harsh. Unforgiving. Whatever the words to respond to this were, I couldn't find them.
"Do you hear me?" She said.
I felt like I was adrift, like I was floating above myself watching this happen. It wasn't supposed to happen like this. I was supposed to call and give her a primer that I wanted to talk to her about something, so that maybe it wouldn't be such a big shock when I told her during the holiday. When I did tell her after Christmas dinner, she would hug me and tell me that she still loved me and that I was her son no matter what. I would hug her back as tears of joy streamed down my cheeks while flurries of perfectly soft white snow fell outside. That was how it was supposed to happen, but it wasn't. It was happening now and I wasn't exactly feeling the love.
"Yes, I hear you." I said in a low, defeated croak.
"And you'd better not tell anybody else, either. You hear me, boy? Those people there are not to be trusted and you can't be getting kicked out. How you gonna pay for college if you get kicked out? Where are you gonna live?" She asked.
"I don't know, mom," I said.
"I know you don't. Is that what you called me about? I've got to get back to driving. Call me next week."
She hung up and I sat on the edge of the bed, motionless. Soon after, I realized I was crying. Out in the distance, I could hear the faint chant of soldiers calling cadence while they ran. Their voices comforted me. When I heard them it was almost as if I wasn't so alone, and it was only when they stopped that I knew I was.
The night I decided to end my life, I sat alone in my barracks room just a few weeks after I came out to my mother. =In the weeks after my admission to her and her subsequent rejection of it, I'd sunk into a deep depression. I was lost, lonely, and consumed with self-hatred about my sexual orientation. I knew the fact that I would never be like other people was what bothered her the most. Though I wanted deeply to talk to someone about my feelings, I knew that I could not. I wanted escape. I figured that the nothingness that death would bring would certainly be better than anything I was experiencing at the time.
If I told anyone about why I wanted to kill myself, even a Chaplain or a mental health person at the VA Hospital on base, I would be discharged under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. I stood to lose everything even if they helped me beforehand. I knew very little about how people went about suicide, but knew that I didn't have the stomach to slit my wrists. I remembered vaguely reading about how any pills taken in large doses could result in death, so I'd bought an economy-sized bottle of Tylenol from the gas station that was walking distance from the barracks, meaning to partner it with a bottle of cheap vodka I'd swiped from an impromptu party that some soldiers in the building had thrown a few weeks back I walked into the bathroom in my barracks room and closed the door, stealing one last glimpse at the night sky just beyond the window.
The fluorescent lights bounced against the cold steel of the counters, toilet, and tub. It served to create a harsh whiteness that was almost clinical, as if I were in a hospital bathroom. I sat on the tile floor and curled against the tub, feeling its hard steel pressing into my spine. I looked down at the bottle of pills in my left hand, the bottle of vodka between my knees, then at the telephone in my right. I couldn't remember picking up the phone to bring it into the bathroom, and found myself dialing my sister's number as if in a daze. My sister and I had never been extremely close, but that night I didn't know whom else to call. I closed my eyes and exhaled in relief as I heard her voice on the other end of the line. Her tone went from annoyance to concern to frantic damage control as I found myself telling her about what I had planned for the evening.
For hours and hours that night, she listened to my problems and concerns as nobody else had before. She told me that she would always love me no matter who or what I was. I sobbed as I listened to her words, and I could hear her own tears and choked up voice through the other end of the phone. After many hours, when she was absolutely convinced that I'd abandoned my plans of suicide, she hung up the phone and went to bed. I sat in the bathroom that night thinking and crying for a very long time, and eventually cried myself to sleep. When I woke up the next morning, the first thing I saw was the bottle of pills that had rolled out of my hand and into a dark corner behind the toilet, abandoned. I picked them up, placed them calmly in the medicine cabinet, and left the bathroom.
ROB SMITH is a gay Iraq war veteran and multimedia journalist. He holds an MS in journalism from Columbia University, and has reported for NBC News, Time, and AOL, among others. His memoir, Closets, Combat and Coming Out (Blue Beacon Books), is available on Amazon.com and wherever LGBT books are sold. For more information on Rob, visit RobSmithOnline.com or follow him on Twitter @RobSmithOnline.
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