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Why we fight


by


Pepe Johnson

Everyone has a story. And every story is unique. Here at MEA we want to empower the individual to share his or her story about why Donít Ask, Donít Tell doesnít work. For veterans that often means sharing honestly about how they served in the U.S. military with skill, courage and honor. But not all of our activists are veterans. Many MEA supporters believe in individual liberties and that a restriction against the personal conduct of servicemembers off-duty are unnecessary limitations on their freedom. Some MEA activists are the spouses of active duty servicemembers and they speak for those who serve in silence. No matter what, every individualís story is unique. Like the strands that form a rope, together our stories are stronger and provide compelling arguments to end discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Today I would like to share my story and I challenge my fellow MEA supporters and activists to do the same. Surveys and studies and statistics all provide logical reasons to end Donít Ask, Donít Tell, but our humanity turns those statistics into truly meaningful information.

 

In the summer of 1999 I enlisted in the US Armyís Delayed Entry Program. I waited anxiously to leave for basic training in January 2000. Since I was big enough to walk, I had been fascinated by the military. Both of my grandfathers had served in World War II and my uncle in Vietnam. Numerous other family members had served as well and my motherís family tree was strongly rooted in the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution. Our house was filled with military memorabilia including uniforms and posters from World War I. Now it was my turn to serve America in uniform.

Basic Combat Training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, was uneventful and like everyone else I was homesick and frustrated and tired, but I finally graduated. I was a 13B Ė Field Artillery Cannon Crewmember Ė and assigned to stay at Fort Sill. My unit supported training activities and we fired more rounds in a month than most artillerymen would fire in their entire career. I participated in competitive boards and was first selected as Battalion Soldier of the Month, eventually I competed for and was selected as the Fort Sill Soldier of the Year in 2001. I made sergeant with less than two years active federal service.

Throughout this time, I was wrestling with myself about my sexuality. Deep inside me I knew that I was gay but I had trouble coming to terms with that reality. I prayed and studied the Bible hoping God would turn me straight. Then I came to understand that being gay is simply who I am Ė part of a complex individual. I had not chosen to be gay, but I had to choose whether I would continue to fight with myself or whether I would cope and learn to live in my own skin. I did cope and I learned to hide myself during duty hours and only relaxed when I was away from post.

Change is the only constant when it comes to life in the military. My battalion and battery received several new leaders in a very short time. Leaders set the climate for their unit and a lot of new leaders creates a lot of change. I wanted to make the Army my career because I enjoyed my work, I enjoyed the camaraderie and I felt called to be a soldier. I thought I could live under the Donít Ask, Donít Tell policy Ė I didnít want to make my personal life a subject of controversy. But the changing climate in my unit made me realize that I couldnít live under such a policy for long.

My commander would stand in front of formations making motivational speeches. Looking for laughs, he would throw in some jokes he thought were funny. He included some jokes that were aimed at making fun of gay people. At first I wasnít bothered and ignored them. Then gay jokes become the only jokes he told and he told them everyday. Then he turned them into threats advising us he had better not find anyone like that in his unit. The new first sergeant was worse Ė his comments going beyond perverse. He constantly reminded us about the size of his genitals and offered to let us experience it firsthand, even providing us with truly graphic details about how it would happen. Not only did I feel uncomfortable, but some of my soldiers approached me asking me to do something about the first sergeantís behavior.

I didnít know where to turn. I was bothered about the situation and so were my soldiers. I didnít think that it was a case for sexual harassment, but looking back maybe it really was. I couldnít stand it anymore. I couldnít deal with the existing situation and I didnít see any transfers coming along soon. As an undermanned training unit, we werenít going to be deployed any time soon. I thought I could make a change by exposing the ridiculousness of their stereotypes and harassing behavior. They celebrated me and recognized me for being the "soldier of the year" over and over again. Sometimes I wished I had never won because of all the attention I received. But, I thought to myself, maybe I could use that notoriety to show them what gays and lesbians are actually capable of.

My friend, a straight NCO in another unit, went with me when I turned in my statement to my commander. I am eternally grateful to him and to everyone else in my own "band of brothers" who stood by me throughout the investigation and discharge. One of my soldiers was on his honeymoon when he heard about the investigation. He called me to find out what was going on and told me he would tell the commander what he thought about the investigation when he got back.

My idea to expose the harassment and discriminatory behavior in my unit did not work as I had hoped. The first sergeant now had someone to direct his anger at and constantly played games with me by giving me conflicting instructions that made me run around like a private in basic training. He even ordered me to be escorted throughout the discharge process "just in case [I] got any ideas." Oddly enough the NCO assigned to escort was junior to me and had just been re-promoted following a DUI. He even admitted that I should be escorting him if you examined our records closely.

I never understood what "ideas" the first sergeant thought I might get. But after being discharged, I did get several ideas Ė and they were about fighting Donít Ask, Donít Tell. As a veteran I am no longer held in silence and can speak out about my experiences. I can also actively oppose Donít Ask, Donít Tell and advocate for change. I relocated to Dallas, Texas, and now take part in the Military Equality Alliance. I havenít given up on my dream of being a career military officer, but I recognize that no career is worthy of losing my personal dignity and liberty. I am still young enough to return to the military when Donít Ask, Donít Tell is gone so hope truly springs eternal. I am willing to risk my own life in defense of liberty, but I will never surrender out of fear and I will never surrender my own liberty.