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Fit to serve

Fit to serve


Openly gay sergeant Robert Stout has served his country to the fullest: He was injured during an attack in Iraq and awarded the Purple Heart. Now he's at the center of a congressional effort to repeal "don't ask, don't tell"

By the night in May 2004 that would forever alter Sgt. Robert Stout's life, he had become used to the dirty, dangerous, and sand-swept reality of fighting in Iraq. The 23-year-old--raised on a farm in rural central Ohio--was a few months into his job working with the Army's explosive ordinance disposal team. Stout's team of up to 20 soldiers spent their days and nights clearing roads of bombs and mines so that supply trucks could safely travel throughout the region. Stout had arrived in Iraq in March 2004 and had quickly gotten used to the chaos. Insurgents would suddenly appear from behind bushes or walls or on top of buildings and shoot at soldiers with machine guns or more deadly rocket-powered weapons. Every time Stout and his men left the security of their base, they could count on facing fire. "Eventually you get into the mind frame where the only thing you do is think about the mission, and nothing else matters," Stout says. "You pretty much learn how to block all that other stuff out." On May 11, 2004, Stout and his platoon were about an hour east of the northern city of Samarra when they got a call that there might be explosives in an abandoned truck near a road. Stout manned a gun atop a Humvee. False alarm. The truck held no explosives. The night was warm and still as midnight came upon the convoy, which started down a tiny street, really only big enough for a regular-size car. "I remember thinking that this could be a pretty place," Stout recalls. "There were palm trees on either side of the street and little mud huts." Suddenly there was an explosion followed by a sharp flash of light. A rocket-powered grenade had hit the right side of the Humvee and sliced its way through the entire vehicle, leaving a gaping hole. Stout was instantly blinded and deafened. He felt as if someone had poured a glass of water on his face. It was actually blood. He immediately ducked into the Humvee, yanked off his Kevlar helmet, and made sure he wasn't missing any body parts. Chunks of shrapnel stuck out of his left arm, and the adrenaline pumping through his body was the only thing that kept him from passing out. The convoy sped out of the kill zone to the base, which was located only a few miles away. Five men were injured and were lifted by medevac helicopter to another base in Iraq. From there Stout and another man were flown to Germany for surgery. "It was insane, to say the least," says Stout in his understated Midwestern way during a phone interview with The Advocate. Nearly a year later, Stout remains on active duty on a base in the small town of Schweinfurt, Germany, about 90 miles from Frankfurt. His sight and hearing have returned. His wounds have healed, yet he can see the scars. There is still a chunk of shrapnel in his neck. Sometimes his arm goes numb for no apparent reason. He was awarded the Purple Heart and keeps it in an end table by his bedside. He even returned to Iraq in July 2004 for a second tour, which ended in February. He is set to be released on May 31. Yet Stout is not getting a hero's treatment. In April he came out as gay, giving the Associated Press an interview that was beamed around the world. His father, a farmer, and mother, a secretary, are furious that he's spoken about his sexuality. On the day he spoke with The Advocate, Stout had returned from a meeting with his battalion commander, who read him his rights and explained how Stout could be punished under "don't ask, don't tell." The Defense Department is weighing whether to dishonorably discharge Stout, who has three more years left in the inactive ready reserves once he returns to the United States. He has no idea what the military will decide. "Personally, I think that I've served my country well," Stout says. "The fact is that I'm deemed unusable by the military just because of what I do on the weekends. That has no bearing whatsoever on my job, no bearing whatsoever with the people I work with. The government is sanctioning bigotry. It is just wrong." Some high-powered members of Congress agree. Slightly more than 70 members of the U.S. House of Representatives have signed on to the Military Readiness Enhancement Act of 2005, which would repeal "don't ask, don't tell." It would replace the failed law with a policy of nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the U.S. Armed Forces. "Gay soldiers have served proudly in every American war, including Iraq and Afghanistan," says Democratic representative Marty Meehan of Massachusetts, who introduced the act. "There are an estimated 65,000 gay service members in the military today. They are serving and they are risking their lives, and Congress should honor their service by allowing them to serve openly." Meehan has been calling for such action since 1993, but many experts agree that "don't ask, don't tell" has a solid chance of being repealed in the near future. In a move seen as a crucial step to overturning "don't ask," the Pentagon on April 21 recommended that its ban on consensual sodomy, for gays or straights, be repealed. The next day it withdrew that recommendation under pressure from the antigay right. Despite that reversal, "Congress is beginning to understand that this is more than a gay and lesbian civil rights issue. It's an issue of national security," says Steve Ralls of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which assists military personnel targeted under "don't ask." "If you are a soldier on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan, you don't have a translator to help you talk to the local person; it's a national security issue. If you are a parent who has a son or daughter who was wounded in the war zone and there's not a physician to take care of them because gay and lesbian doctors are being turned away, it's a national security issue."

The call to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" has even got some unexpected Republican support--notably from Florida congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who says Stout's story has helped change her position on the issue. "How could we award a Purple Heart [to Stout] on a Monday and on Tuesday say, 'You're not fit for service?' " she asks The Advocate. "This is a wrong message to send, and it denies our country the opportunity to get the best and the brightest from all walks of life. Look at the money that we've been spending to weed out the military of people based on their sexual orientation." Ros-Lehtinen is referring to a report by the Government Accountability Office released in February 2005 showing that the U.S. military has spent at least $200 million during the past 10 years to replace soldiers who were discharged under "don't ask, don't tell." Almost 9,500 gay men and lesbians were kicked out since the 1993 law went into effect. That figure includes 322 who were skilled in crucial languages. On April 13 seven members of the House Armed Services Committee called on its Republican chairman to hold hearings to review "don't ask, don't tell." "At a time when our military is already stretched dangerously thin, we are concerned that discharging qualified service members solely because of their sexual orientation is counterproductive," they wrote in a letter. As of press time, no hearings had been scheduled. Making matters more pressing is the fact that the Army missed its monthly recruiting target in February by a whopping 27.5%. Before that month the Army had not missed a target since May 2000. Stout sounds a little stunned by all the attention that his case has garnered--especially when he was flown to Washington, D.C., to tape The Newshour With Jim Lehrer. In speaking to him, what becomes quickly apparent is that antigay conservatives who want to continue down the path of "don't ask, don't tell" will have a tough time trying to make the case why Stout should be booted from the Army. He is about as all-American as they come: a blond-haired, blue-eyed farm boy who grew up in the conservative small town of Utica, Ohio. His county overwhelmingly voted to reelect George W. Bush. Stout had a "normal" childhood in middle America. There wasn't much to do in the village of just over 2,000 residents. It was a youth spent hanging out in the woods building forts, going hunting, helping breed dogs on the family farm, or golfing at the local links. As he entered high school Stout made extra money by working at a local bowling alley. He also began to realize that he was gay. "High school really wasn't that bad. I only came out to three or four people, and they were really good friends of mine. The rest of the people figured I was just 'eccentric,' would be a polite way to say it, so they pretty much ignored me," he says. "I never went out on dates, never really hung out with a lot of people except for my own little clique." Stout joined the Army because he wanted to see the world. At age 17 he signed up for the delayed entry program and entered basic training right after high school graduation. "It looked like a really good job, like a bunch of stuff that would interest me because I love shooting guns. It looked like a hell of a lot of fun," he says. "I also think it was cool to sit there and say, 'Yeah, I'm in the Army.' It seemed pretty patriotic. It was awesome." When he signed up for the Army, he says, he didn't really consider how his sexuality would impact his duty as a soldier. He left for basic training at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2000. He quickly established networks of military friends who were gay and lesbian.

"When I got to the unit there was one guy there who clicked on the gaydar, and then we got to talking," Stout recalls. "He was really open, so he told me that he was gay. I'm like, 'Cool, guess what?' And I told him. We're everywhere. Then he introduced me to friends. We started going out together. He said, 'Hey, I've got a friend that knows a friend, and he's going out.' " Stout continued to meet gay and lesbian soldiers after he arrived in Germany in 2002. During off weekends they sometimes hit the gay clubs in Munich or Frankfurt. He jokes that the local gay German men have a special affection for American soldiers. Yet, like many soldiers in his position, Stout has quickly learned to lead a double life. He is always on guard, never quite knowing if he can trust someone new. "You get to the point where if you're talking to somebody you don't know, you change all your pronouns," he says. "The word 'he' becomes 'she' and you never mention what bars you go to. When somebody asks you if you're dating anybody, you just say no. You learn to clam up about your personal life." He adds, "It's time to move on. It's time to go to the next step. We've proven it time and time again that homosexuals are able to serve honorably. We do our jobs, just like everybody else. The guys downrange were not worrying about whether I liked them or not, if I had a crush on them. They worried about getting the job done, just like me. I don't worry about my soldiers sitting there going, 'Oh, wow, he's cute.' You're worried about getting the job done." The majority of Americans don't seem to have a problem with it either. Recent polls show that a little more than 60% say that gay men and lesbians should be able to serve openly in the military. The number is even higher for the generation under the age of 25 who have grown up in a world where gays are much more visible. "I think it's inevitable that the policy will change," says Aaron Belkin, director of the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "Congress can ignore the will of the people for a long time, but they can't ignore the will of the people forever. And now that you have polls showing that a majority of junior enlisted service members, the very people in foxholes who 'don't ask, don't tell' is supposed to support, favor lifting the ban, it's clear that policy change is inevitable." Stout is anxious to return to the United States no matter what obstacles he will face. He plans to leave Utica for good and move somewhere warmer like Texas, California, or Florida. "I'd like to get a degree in architecture, residential architecture, and would love to spend the rest of my life designing homes," he says. "That's just one of the things we're going to have to see about when I get out. I'm going to try to do it as much as I can." Stout is planning to stop in Utica only long enough to collect his belongings. He does not know if his parents will be on speaking terms with him: "They're not very supportive of me at the moment."

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