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An Army Linguist Speaks Out

by

Patrick English

It is rare that when in the midst of our actions that we fully realize their implications. However, when I found myself sitting with other gay veterans speaking with Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Ret. General John Shalikashvili, I had such a moment. Whether or not the details of that conversation would ever be recorded, or the fact that it happened ever disclosed, I knew that it would be a significant event in the fight to repeal "Donít Ask, Donít Tell." Sharing my story helped to convince the former top officer of the US Military that yes, gays could serve openly and honestly in todayís military, without an issue.

I joined the Army at 17, following in the footsteps of my best friend who had joined the previous year. Every time she came home to Santa Cruz, California on leave, she was full of stories about the Army and what a great and challenging career it was. She begged me to visit her recruiter, but I declined each time. In my senior year of high school I was used to recruiters coming on campus, but I thought the military was only for people who couldnít make it into college. I was the last person I imagined going into the service for many factors, not the least of which included the recent discovery of my sexuality. But early in the year 2000, things begin to rapidly change, and I embarked on what would become an exciting Army career.

By the time my best friend Rachel had returned home on leave from her advanced training in Ft Huachuca, Arizona, my college applications had returned as well. I had not accepted to a single college I had applied to. I went with Rachel to meet her recruiter, and looked at a list of career options. Immediately the job of linguist stuck out from the rest. I have always loved learning foreign language, and at that time was studying Spanish and Japanese in high school. The fact that I would attend the Defense Language Institute, only an hour from home, and the fact that I would earn college credit at the same time, sold me. I was about to break with the path of most my age and find some desperately needed discipline and direction. I would become part of an institution where I would be judged on my merits, not on my background or who I was. Or so I thought. One question remained. "What about being gay?" I asked Rachel. She told me it didnít matter, that she was even serving with gay men and women in her unit at the time.

I signed the paperwork, was shipped off to basic soon after graduation from high school. I was convinced that "Donít Ask, Donít Tell" was there for my protection, and that as long as I wasnít open about my sexuality, it couldnít be used against me. Still, I went back into the closet, thinking that being gay was just a phase, and the military would straighten me out.

While studying Korean at the Defense Language Institute, I realized that being gay was part of who I was, and would not change. I came out to my mother, who was disappointed and unhappy. Bipolar, and at that time untreated, she was paranoid and convinced the Army was "out to get me." She told me she would out me to my commander. I was crushed. She threatened my career that I had worked so hard to build. I had excelled in Basic Training, pushing myself harder and further than I thought was possible, and my love for language was serving me well in my classes.

One weekend, without my knowledge, my mother drove onto post and met with my commander behind closed doors. I found out and sure enough, Monday morning I was standing at attention in front of CPT Johnson in his office. I thought my career was over, and I would be kicked out. I wasnít prepared for what he told me.

"English, youíre a good soldier. Weíre here to support you, not your mother."

He dismissed me, and let me know that if I ever needed to speak to someone that my chain of command was there for me. I was never asked about my sexuality, and I figured that "Donít Ask, Donít Tell" was working.

In the midst of this turbulence, I felt very alone. Finally, I took a great risk and came out to one of my close friends, to find some support for what was going on. I had suspected he was gay as well, but I was still fearful of making a mistake that would cost me my career. But my fears were unfounded; he was gay, and introduced me to an entire network of gay and lesbian service members, and more importantly, straight allies. Our straight peers that knew us didnít care about our sexuality.

Despite this acceptance, I was about to see the full gravity of "Donít Ask, Donít Tell" and what it would mean to the many friends I had made at the Defense Language Institute. I had graduated DLI and was in Texas for my advanced training when I received the news. Over half a dozen linguists in training, many of them studying Arabic, were investigated and discharged for homosexuality. All of them were close friends of mine. For a short time I was very afraid and wanted to retreat further into the closet, but a close friend of mine, Ian, the first one I came out to in the military, spurred me into action.

He told me that we couldnít stand by and do nothing as our friendsí careers were cut short. I chose to take a stand, and that became a turning point for me.

I found myself stationed in Korea, and my friend Ian began working on speaking to the media and forming a group of active-duty LGBT service members. He worked routinely with Dr. Aaron Belkin of the Michael D. Palm Center, formerly the Center for Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military. But Ian was soon to leave for the invasion of Iraq, and left the duties in my hands. I worked with Dr. Belkin after that, speaking with reporters, contributing quotes and information to studies on gays in the military, and attempting to give the active-duty LGBT community a voice.

During this time I was still not out to many of my peers that I served with in Korea. But as I became closer to my buddies that I had worked with for years, I felt I could no longer keep my sexuality a secret. To some it came as a shock, but most of my peers had already guessed that I was gay. On confirming my sexuality to them, I was met with acceptance. They understood that my sexuality had nothing to do with how well I performed my job. Not surprisingly, being honest with my co-workers strengthened my bonds of trust with them. There was no need for secrecy, no need to hide anymore. Still, I didnít disclose my sexual orientation to everyone. I still ran the risk of being kicked out if the wrong person found out and chose to use it against me.

As for combat, I was stationed in Iraq for several months, performing logistics and supply missions. I was also part of a shop that collected, analyzed, and disseminated all the intelligence for northern Iraq. A small group of us were deployed with an infantry platoon to the tiny town of Rabiyah on the Iraqi Syrian border, to perform an intelligence survey in the area. Without warning, a suicide bomber drove into the side our compound, destroying a section of our perimeter and doing extensive damage to our building and the neighboring ones. I was in the building at the time, and I immediately ran for my gear and prepared to face whatever attack might follow. At that moment I wasnít worried about my sexuality, and my peers that I was with werenít either.

I learned a lesson the day I met with General Shalikashvili, one that would continue to prove true as I met with individuals across the country: in a fact and experience based discussion about "Donít Ask, Donít Tell," the rationale for keeping the policy in place falls apart. We live in an age where generals and junior enlisted understand that sexuality does not affect oneís performance in the Armed Services. In the words of General John Shalikashvili, "we must welcome the service of any American who is willing and able to do the job."