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Closeted and
under fire

Closeted and
under fire

941_military

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

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.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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