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August 15, 2006

Profiles in Patriotism:
Mike Rankin, M.D., Capt., MC, USN (Ret.)
Norfolk Town Hall Speech
Norfolk, Va. July 29, 2006

When I joined the Navy in the on July 1, 1964, I fully expected to serve my two year obligation, then leave to begin private practice.

Thirty four years later, when I actually did retire, the Navy sent me a nice letter thanking me for my service, and asking one small favor. In the future, when I speak to a group of military women and men, or to any audience about military issues, would I please do so in uniform?

I have proudly honored that request, because I am proud to have had the privilege of serving this nation that I love so much as a Navy medical officer, even though I had to serve those 34 years in silence.

We are here to talk about "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell," and its negative impact, not only on gay and lesbian service members, but on the nation as a whole, at a time when our military is stretched so thin, when new crises demanding new responses, including military responses, seem to arise almost daily. When it borders on the criminal for the military to deny patriotic young Americans of the highest caliber the right to serve because of their sexual orientation, yet be willing to enlist not only those who failed academically, but even convicted felons. We see in the case of Steven Green and his buddies in Mahmundiya how well that worked out.

Every one of us on this panel served honorably, despite the prejudice against us. We stayed on active duty or in the active reserves, living with that prejudice, for many reasons. I know I decided to stay after I met and attempted to help two gay men, one a young sailor at Gitmo, the other a Marine corporal in Vietnam.

My first Navy tour of duty was with a destroyer division based in Newport. Soon after I reported aboard, our ships headed for Guantanamo Bay for refresher training.

One morning after sick call a young sailor asked to see me privately. He was troubled about something and having difficulty saying what it was, Finally he blurted it out—he thought he might be gay. No, nobody was hassling him about it—his shipmates didn’t suspect. No, he didn’t want to get out of the Navy. His ship had become his home, a far better one than his family’s hardscrabble Kentucky farm. No, he didn’t think he was mentally ill. Then what was the problem? It was a religious one. He thought God would condemn him for being attracted to men.

I told Eli that wasn’t my understanding about the way God worked in the world, but I’m Jewish and he was Protestant—he should see a Protestant chaplain. He agreed. Our ship’s chaplain would have handled it beautifully, but he was on leave, so I sent him to the Protestant chaplain on base, a man I’d never met. We’d talk afterwards if he wanted to

The next day our ship’s softball team played a team from another ship. In those days the ballpark was very near the fence which separates the base from Cuba proper. The Cubans had also erected a fence. Between the two was a mine field.

Eli played center field on our team. Early in the first inning the play suddenly stopped. He had somehow gotten over the fence and was standing in the mine field. His division CPO climbed the fence and held him tight until we could get a map of the mine placement and bring them safely out.

In sick bay I asked him what had happened. The chaplain had confirmed his worst fears. God would indeed send him to hell for his homosexual feelings, though he had never acted on them. Suicide was preferable to a lifetime of guilt and shame.

I transferred the seaman to the Navy hospital in Philadelphia, to a colleague I met at the Naval Academy at Annapolis, where BUMED sent us for a three week orientation for new medical officers. Later Jeff and I would organize a sort of medical underground, a group of GLBT physicians, nurses, and corpsmen—and straight colleagues with integrity—whom we knew would be treat our gay and lesbian patients well. This was the first time we knew we needed one.

And I never again referred a sailor to a chaplain I didn’t know.

Eli was my first experience with the plight of gays in the military. The second would come a few months later, when I was assigned to a Marine Force Recon unit in I Corps in Vietnam.

We had an RTO corporal in our unit who was a mechanical genius. Bill alone could keep the radios working even in the monsoon rains; he was our lifeline. It was Bill who called in the helicopters to evacuate our wounded.

Mistaking a sergeant’s friendliness for something more, Bill slipped him an affectionate note one afternoon when we returned to base after a firefight, suggesting they go on R&R together in Nha Trang.. Outraged, the sergeant took the note to the unit commander, who called me in.

"He’s the best radioman we have, Doc," the first lieutenant said, "but he’s queer. We can’t have him in the squad. See him and start the discharge process."

I spent an hour with the crestfallen and embarrassed young man. I would never assign a "diagnosis" of homosexuality to a perfectly healthy military man or woman, even at a time when homosexuality was still listed in psychiatry’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. I wrote up the case as mild depression, which was fine with the lieutenant. We sent Bill to the Navy hospital in Yokosuka, Japan for "treatment" and discharge. Several weeks later, in Hong Kong, I ran into him at the China Fleet Club, where we were both buying cameras."What are you doing here, Bill," I asked? "Didn’t they send you home?"

"Nah Doc—when they need you they keep you. They just transferred me to a unit in the Delta.

When they need you they keep you. If only that were true today. Tragically it is not. The stop order does not apply to gay men and lesbians, even if they are fluent Arabic speaking linguists who have observed the policy to the letter, and are eager to serve in Iraq.

At my wife’s urging, I left active duty, but I stayed in the Navy Reserves, drilling one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer. I understood by then that it was important for GLBT sailors to have someone they could trust to talk to. Sometimes I saw active duty sailors—and Army, Air Force, Marines, and members of the Coast Guard as well sent to me by savy corpsmen and officers—in my office ashore, so nothing would go into their active duty files.

. In the late l970’s I began to hear horror stories of the insensitive treatment my fellow Vietnam veterans were receiving at VA hospitals from staff who hadn’t a clue what we had been through over there. Like many of my medical colleagues who had served in that terrible war, I joined the staff of a VA hospital, in my case in San Francisco and Oakland. I would remain a VA doc for 18 years..

The years passed. I dealt with my own Vietnam demons, got a divorce, came out as a gay man, co-founded the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, chaired the National Jewish Committee on HIV and AIDS, joined the board of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation—and lost a lover to AIDS.

Some of this was reported in the papers, but the Navy took no official notice. Promotions came when they should have. I was open in my professional life, and discrete in my personal life. As an 0-6 combat veteran, and a VA physician caring for those who had served in all our wars since WWII, I was harder to discharge than a BM II, much less a deck seaman. .

Still, even in those pre-"Don’t Ask Don’t Tell" days, when there was a live and let live attitude in many commands, this was too good to last, and it didn’t.

By l988, I was in zone for promotion to flag rank—rear Admiral. I’d done everything necessary to be promoted and more. One day in May I got a call from the Navy District Admiral inviting me to lunch at the Nimitz Club on Treasure Island. This is it, I thought—I made it! I alerted my friends to get ready for a celebration.

There would be no celebration. "You know Doc," the Admiral told me over his fish and chips, "you’re a fine officer (where had I heard that before), but the Navy just doesn’t promote single men to flag rank."

"Single men." I got the message. It was time to go. I submitted my retirement papers, effective two months hence. I wanted them to have time to find a replacement for the ship, and I wanted to leave having been in for a full 24 years active duty and active reserves.

The following drill weekend, in mid-June, the ship was tied up at the pier at Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. We had just started lunch in the wardroom when Lt. j.g. Jones rushed in out of breath.

"Permission to join the mess, Captain," he panted. "Sorry to be late sir—a couple faggots wanted a tour of the ship and I had to chase them away."

All morning we’d been offering tours to families and to young women eager to meet a sailor. This was routine when we were not underway. The Navy considered these ship visits great public relations, as long as the visitors were heterosexual families and single women. Men who might be gay need not apply.

"Permission granted, Lieutenant," the captain replied. "Take your seat." Conversation around the table continued.

I sat there seething, staring at my plate. Faggot. Faggot. It rang in my ears. And I began to remember all the times during the 24 years when I’d listened without comment to shipboard homophobic slurs and "jokes."

I thought of all the conversations started, in sickbay or on the bridge at sea, and then broken off, because a shipmate wasn’t sure I wouldn’t turn him in if he told me his secret. I thought of the gutsy sailors who did take the risk, because of their own courage, and because scuttlebutt had it—correctly for once-- that what was said in my sickbay stayed there. I was safe to talk to.

But so often I had remained silent in my medical office, letting those who needed to talk "teach me" about gay life. For whatever reason, I couldn’t simply say "I understand. I’m gay too. I know what it’s like to come out to a close friend or family member who’s promised ‘unconditional love,’ only to find that love wasn’t so unconditional after all. I know about being in the closet at work, making up fictitious dates with the opposite sex. And buddy I know exactly what it’s like to lose a lover—it hurts like hell." Those empathetic words remained largely unsaid. The Navy was my last closet—until that June lunch in the wardroom.

Sitting at the table with those men, I felt my cool rationality slipping away. I ceased to be a medical officer and a role model for the corpsmen under my command. I was no longer a psychiatrist trained to understand motivation and behavior. I had no more excuses for all the young officers who responded to peer pressure with pathetic attempts to be "more macho than thou." And I had no more excuses for my own silence; that silence was compliance.

Right there in the wardroom, before God and the whole U.S Navy, I became simply one pissed off queer.

Facing the immediate source of my discontent, who was happily eating away, I commented in what I thought was a quiet conversational tone of voice, "Lt. Jones, I was offended by your use of the word ‘faggot.’ Using that word is like calling someone a nigger, a spick, wop, kike or cunt. It automatically defines one as a bigot. Bigotry, Lieutenant, is not a quality the Navy usually looks for when it selects its officers for promotion. Now that you know that, I’m sure you’ll not use the term again."

He sat there with the chipped beef on his fork, halfway between his plate and his open mouth. The other officers looked from him to me and back, speechless.

For about fifteen long seconds I felt like I’d just told the dentist, "oh forget the novocaine, just go ahead and drill," one of those remarks you instantly want to retract.

But I couldn’t retract it. It hung there in the air. I thought if I didn’t say something to get us past the moment, the room would explode. "Captain, would you please pass the catsup" I asked calmly? "My beef’s a little tough." The captain passed the catsup, there were sighs of relief, and the talk turned again to the Niners vs the Raiders.

The enlisted men serving the food were hanging onto every syllable; the word was all over the ship in about a minute.

That afternoon nothing much happened, except I imagined a couple sailors who’d been friendly in the past were a bit cool. I saw a few patients, gave a VD lecture, and went home.

Sunday morning sick call consisted mainly of the usual requests for hangover relief. I sent the corpsmen below decks to inventory medical supplies in our storerooms, and had settled back to read Architectural Digest when Charlie, the ship’s bosn’s mate, knocked on the sickbay door and came in. "How ya doing Doc" he asked?

"Fine Boats—can I help you with something? A little too much partying last night?" I reached for the aspirin.

"Nah, Doc—I’m fine. Just wanted to see how you were doing." He shook my hand and left.

A few minutes later another sailor entered, his hands full of candy bars and peanuts. "Hi Doc, I thought maybe you didn’t get your gedunk from ship’s store before it closed."

"Thanks a lot Warren. I didn’t. Let me pay you for these."

"Nah Doc—my treat." He headed down the passageway toward his bunk for a quick nap before ship’s work commenced.

Puzzled, I returned to my reading. Before long, without knocking, Eddie shoved open the door and stood before me, his face, hands, jeans and t-shirt covered with grease as usual, not surprising for a "snipe" who worked in the boiler room.

"How the *** are you Doc? Do you like cigars?"

"Uh—sure Eddie."

"I thought so. Here’s a *** box of ** Cubans. Buddy of mine in the Canadian Navy gets them for me."

"Hey—thanks—but let me pay you for these. They must have set you back a week’s pay!"

"Shut the *** up Doc. They’re yours. Enjoy."

And off he went back to his beloved engineering spaces, leaving grease on my doorknob.

The second Sunday in July, l988, I left the Navy. I saw my last patient, closed my medical bag, and headed for the quarterdeck.

I don’t know what I expected. Maybe someone, perhaps the captain, would be there to wish me a fair wind and a following sea, the traditional Navy words of farewell. The captain remained in his cabin, as did the executive officer.

I saluted the Officer of the Deck, a young jg who’d been at the wardroom table that memorable Saturday. "Permission to go ashore!" "Permission granted."

I saluted the ensign flag on the stern, and walked down the gangplank to the pier. It was over.

Well—not quite. A week or so later I got a call from Eddie. He and his "better half" were having a barbecue at the trailer park where they lived—would I come?

Why not, I thought? I was out of the Navy now—I could have dinner with Eddie and his wife and friends with no qualms about "fraternization with enlisted men" whatsoever.

I arrived at the trailer park to find three long tables set up outside, with starched table cloths, china, glasses, and silverware which, if not expensive, all matched, unlike my own. Eddie’s "better half" was a merchant seaman named Fred who greeted their guests and kept the beer flowing while Eddie grilled.

Charlie and Warren were there, as were the other gay sailors from the ship, some with their partners, about 20 in all.

We ate some of the best steaks I’ve had in my life, followed by a good port, good cigars, and a mercifully brief toast from Eddie.

"Doc," he said, "we just *** wanted to say ***thanks. Thanks sir. Thanks shipmate."

If you think I was too proud to show emotion in front of those men, think again. I was too proud not to!

There were painful and difficult times under the military’s homophobic policy, both before "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell" and now. Yes, I would do it all over again, but why should the men and women in today’s military have to put up with such bigotry when all the rationales for it—especially the old unit cohesion argument—have long since been disproven and discarded in other militaries most like ours. They shouldn’t. I hope gatherings like this will help bring a time when "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell" will be relegated to the ash heap of history, like the military’s official discrimination against women, African Americans, and other minorities. It can’t come a day too soon. Thank you.

Mike Rankin, M.D., Capt., MC, USN (Ret.)

Norfolk, Va. 7-29-06