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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Coming Out Stories: In Troops' Own Words

 A new book gives a face to the countless number of gay and lesbian service members who have been forced to serve while hiding part of their identity.
Air Force First Lt. Josh Seefried, who went by J.D. Smith
We might never know the exact number of LGBT people serving in the military right now, but Air Force First Lt. Josh Seefried (who was, until now, operating under the pseudonym J.D. Smith) at OutServe is hoping to share at least a few of their stories with a new book, Our Time.  

The pages contain the personal recounting of active and retired service members in a range of ranks, and they explain how "don't ask, don't tell" has affected their lives and careers. From gay-friendly commanding officers, to personnel isolated from their families, it's clear that being gay in the military invited a list of concerns, issues, and attitudes that straight counterparts had the benefit of ignoring.

On the first day of a nation post-"don't ask, don't tell," we highlight three stories from the book — of two sailors, and an airman, whose lives have been altered because of the 17-year-old law.

Daniel W. Hill is a petty officer third class and a chaplain's assistant in the U.S. Navy who is currently stationed at Camp H.M. Smith in Hawaii. He intends to pursue master's degrees in law and financial management in London once he's completed his active service. In his own words:

"Unfortunately, the chaplain I was assigned to protect in Afghanistan had an ugly attitude, a sharp tongue, and a rather foul mouth. I did my best to ignore his comments. When he began to question my sexual orientation with others within my chain of command, however, I could no longer ignore him. I began to document the statements I'd overheard, or that friends had witnessed. I needed to prepare myself for the worst. My mother herself had suffered discrimination within her unit of the Army, and I knew from her example how to handle this situation with grace and professionalism.

"I began to seek the counsel of several senior enlisted leaders and officers outside of my chain of command, as well as legal professionals within our command. This led to the decision to formally file an equal opportunity and harassment complaint. When I sat before my commanding officer and explained the situation, she was appalled that something like this was occurring in her unit. She explained, however, that there was nothing she could do to the chaplain legally, as the military did not recognize sexual orientation  as an equal opportunity issue. This caused me great dismay. I felt it was hard enough to be an African American in the United States, with its still fresh wounds from racism and now I had to deal with the onslaught of gay hatred and bias as well. I felt betrayed by my own country and comrades."

Jenn Brown (pseudonym) is a midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy, where she aspires to become a pilot in the Navy. In her own words:

"I remember the day I was accepted into the United States Naval Academy. My mom was so excited she came to the restaurant where I waited tables and made me open the package in front of her. My dad couldn't have been prouder. When I got home, I looked through the package and pulled out my service papers. I remember the document asking me if I had any mental reservations that would keep me from fulfilling my duties. I put the paper down, and my eyes focused on the two words, 'mental reservations.' The truth was, yes, I did have mental reservations. I knew that if I signed that paper, I would not only be fulfilling my dream of service, but I would also be signing away my personal life, sentencing it to years of dishonesty, hiding, and shame. I kept looking at the paper. Should I sign? Is this what I really wanted? The answer was a resounding yes. Did I want to hide who I was for the rest of my career, maybe even the rest of my life? That answer was a resounding no.

"I remember putting the pen down and going outside to get some fresh air. The stars were out that clear Texas night; my thoughts held anything but clarity. I knew if I signed that paper I would be lying, a violation of the very foundation my future school and service were built upon: honor, courage and commitment. Those three words even appeared on the front of the Naval Academy folder all my papers had come in. I knew signing would violate the first, and possibly the most important, of the three. I went back inside. I picked up my pen and signed the paper. I looked at my signature, just barely dried in black ink. I knew I had just committed myself to a life of service and that I would be fulfilling my dream."

Jonathan Mills is a staff sergeant and electronic technician in the U.S. Air Force currently stationed in Washington, D.C. He is the first executive editor of OutServe.  In this excerpt, Mills and his wife decided to separate after he came out to her. The situation got stickier when he tried to notify his supervisor about the separation without sparing any possibly damaging details. In his own words:

"Finally, he told me we were going to drive to my house to talk with my wife and me about it together, just to make absolutely certain we both knew exactly what we were doing. My heart jumped to my throat and my breakfast threatened to follow.... The whole ride there I prayed that his car would somehow go off the road and crash into a tree. Alas, he did not lose control of the vehicle. We made it almost all the way to my house before I worked up the courage to take control of the situation. I told him to stop the car and swallowed back the breakfast that was making good on its threat of a mid-morning reappearance.

"We sat in silence while he looked at me and I looked down at my feet, as if the right words would just materialize there on the floor mats. For what seemed like hours but was actually just minutes, my heart pounded in my ears and my hands sweat and shook. This was the moment where my short-lived Air Force career would officially come to a screeching halt. And then I just said it: 'I want to be honest with you and I know I can trust you. We are getting separated because I’m gay.' His gaze did not shift. He kept looking at me as if to say, 'Come again?' What seemed like another eternity elapsed until he said, 'Oh.'

"I don’t remember what either of us said immediately after that, but he still wanted to talk to my wife and me — to make sure we were both OK. Once we were at my house, just before walking in he turned to me and said, 'Jonathan, it’s okay. It’s going to be all right.'"


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