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Fundamentally Out

Chaplain (Colonel) Paul W. Dodd, U.S. Army (Ret)


”I began to find my voice for social justice at Little Rock Central High School .  Now I find myself speaking out because I "can’t not" speak out. The scripture says, "if I don’t speak the stones will cry out" [Luke 19:40]. I think the best part of my coming-out is that I am now able to have a voice and able to speak out on what I truly believe are important issues in our society, not only for gays and lesbians, but for other minorities as well.”

By Denny Meyer, based on an interview by Steve Estes for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project

The son of a fundamentalist Baptist preacher, Paul Dodd was born in Crowley, Louisiana in early 1942. He began developing a sense of social justice while attending high school in Little Rock, Arkansas in the late 1950s,  when the racial integration events unfolded there at his school. (His account of that experience follows this article).

He attended Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, where he was in the ROTC program for two years, and majored in speech and drama, with a minor in music.  During that time, his father was
pastor of First Baptist Church in Greenwood, Arkansas, just out the back gates of Fort Chaffee. His family had a long history of preachers and military service, beginning with a great-grandfather who was a chaplain in the Confederate Army. Hence, his career as a military chaplain was very much in keeping with his family's tradition.

After completing his studies in Arkadelphia, he became an associate pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Fort Smith, Arkansas, as minister of music and youth.  During this time, he met and married his wife, Jane, and soon they moved to Fort Worth, Texas, where he attended Southwestern Baptist
Theological Seminary, and received both his Master of Divinity and Master of Religious Education degrees. Just prior to leaving the seminary in 1969, for a pastorate at First Baptist Church in Tyronza, Arkansas, their first child was born. During the time in seminary, in 1967, he also began his military career when he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Chaplain Candidate Program.  He was promoted to first lieutenant and became a chaplain in August of 1968 while attending the Basic Officers’
Course at the United States Army Chaplain School in Fort Hamilton, NY.  He also began to embrace a more liberal and progressive theology, which stressed social ethics. At his next pastorate in West Helena, Arkansas, on the Mississippi River Delta, he began to take strong public stands for racial and social justice. He was able to share his belief well enough that he and his congregation grew in strength and conviction together for five years.

At Fort Campbell, Kentucky, he was assigned as assistant Division Support Command Chaplain (DISCOM) of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), and later became Command Chaplain of the DISCOM,  where he ministered to several thousand soldiers, did PT with them in the mornings, and went through combat training with them. From 1980-1981 he was stationed at Camp Page, Korea near the 38th parallel, a location that North Korean planes could reach within minutes.

From 1982 until late 1986, he was the senior pastor at Memorial Chapel, Fort Myer, Virginia, in the Military
District of Washington.. Arriving as a Major, he was the first chaplain who didn’t carry the rank of Colonel to head that congregation in many years. He was preaching to the leadership of the military, including many general officers, senior Army staff, White House staffers and members of Congress.  . It was an incredible opportunity. One Sunday morning, in a sermon he preached on the occasion of the rededication of the Statue of Liberty, he told the congregation that "we wouldn’t truly be a free nation until every group in America was liberated, free, and recognized equally with every other group."  Although some parishioners were highly complimentary, and asked for copies of his sermon, he received a poisonous letter from a former officer strongly objecting to his message.

Through most of his life and military career, Paul Dodd was aware of his homosexuality; however, he was focused on his own priorities which were his family, his ministry, and his career in the military. There was never a question about his genuine love for his wife and children, nor did he ever question his calling to ministry, nor did he ever regret a moment of his sparkling military career as a chaplain. One gets a clear sense that he did not lead a dishonest life; rather he spoke up for social justice often, whenever it was right to do so. However, like so many others, he made a sacrifice for a very long time. He eventually came to a time in retirement where he was able to fully be himself. Yet, in a different world
without homophobia, he would have been able to do all that he has done without such a sacrifice of personal freedom. As we now know, one can be a loving mate, parent, and patriot, serving one's nation without compromise or contradiction, when ideological bigotry does not prevail.

Starting at Fort Myer in the early 80s. he began an HIV/AIDS ministry with affected service members, long before the full extent of the virus was known. From those early days of darkness, he became the chaplain whom service members could trust and turn to for comfort and guidance. During his first hospital assignment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he developed a pastoral knowledge about HIV/AIDS, and later wrote his doctoral dissertation about the spiritual components of HIV/AIDS and the military community.  After having had a premonition about a dear friend and former colleague who needed his support as he died of AIDS, Paul Dodd made it his mission to work with those afflicted and to educate other chaplains regarding the dignity and needs of those with HIV/AIDS. As he wrote in his dissertation: "Faith and family are important components (of peoples lives). And, yet for so many people living with HIV/AIDS, those are the two things that are first to go. They feel abandoned by their churches, and they feel abandoned by their families. So, the very two components that seem to be
most important for quality of life issues, to be with their family and to be with their community of faith, sometimes are taken away from them."

He participated in many programs that were being conducted by the military on HIV and AIDS.  He addressed several Army-wide conferences, and began an HIV/AIDS support group while Chief of the Department of Ministry and Pastoral Care at Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC).  Even after he took over as Command Chaplain for the Medical Command, he continued to go back to BAMC to run the support group. His wife, Jane, joined him in his ministry to AIDS patients after he came out to her in the early 1990s. Through that ministry together, in part, they worked through the turmoil of their changing lifelong relationship.  Frequently, he stood up for the rights of soldiers with AIDS who had been discriminated against. This was particularly courageous and selfless during the mid 90s, in the era of
“Don't Ask Don't Tell”, when open support for gay military personnel could lead to suspicion and investigation.

Far from being fearful, he forthrightly dealt with the issue of discrimination and disclosure by military
chaplains.  As he related:  "Unfortunately, there have been chaplains who have turned soldiers in who had come to them and disclosed, basically outing themselves to the chaplain, that they were gay and looking for counseling and help. And, I think it’s just outrageous that chaplains would do that. I recall having sat in the Council of Colonels -- kind of the executive council of the Chief of Chaplains, where we were briefed about gays in the military.  And, the Pentagon briefer made a comment that some chaplains had actually turned soldiers in, because they thought it was in keeping with the welfare of the soldiers,
and the well-being of the Army, to turn gay soldiers in. And, I remember standing and objecting, saying that it was outrageous for any chaplain to ever consider breaking the confidence of a soldier because of this issue. And, that if a chaplain like that worked for me, I would fire them on the spot. And you
know -- no one challenged that, because they knew I was right. There’s just no excuse for chaplains to
ever break the confidentiality of  service members who disclose their sexual orientation."

At Ft. Sam Houston, where he was the Command Chaplain for the United States Army Medical Command, he supervised the work of health-care chaplains, chaplain assistants, and support staff throughout the Army, from the Pacific to Europe, in Army hospitals and medical centers.  Following that penultimate position, and after having been selected for attendance in residence at the Army’s War College,  he made the decision to retire from the military in order to fully pursue the calling he had grown into as a gay pastoral counselor and psychotherapist.  His life had evolved; his sacrifice had served many; and he moved on into a life of greater personal integrity.

 Paul Dodd states, "With DA/DT, obviously, injustice and discrimination were codified into law and military regulations.  It’s an ill begotten law that asks soldiers to live with deceit and dishonesty. DA/DT legislates a culture of silence, secrecy, and shame, which is harmful not only to gay soldiers but to the morale and welfare, I believe, of the greater force."

Had American patriots been allowed to serve openly when DA/DT was being debated, he says, "There’s no doubt in my mind, with exemplary and strong leadership from the top on down through the ranks, we could have done that and it would have been successful.  The military already has a strong, effective equal opportunity program, and you know -- we’re trained, we’re trained to obey orders and to do what is expected of us.   And, if military leaders had said, "This is our policy and we’re going to adhere to it", the great majority of soldiers would have honored that. So, we were equipped, I believe, to do it. But, of course, there was a turn of events and it became a political football, and well, you know the rest of the story."

"The military was good to me," he said, "the military was good to my family. They gave me far more breaks and far more promotions and honors then I ever imagined possible, far beyond what I think I deserve.  I’m grateful for having had the opportunity to serve. I truly don’t believe my sexual orientation affected the quality and professionalism of my service one way or the other. And, I know in my heart that our soldiers now, who happen to be gay or lesbian, are serving honorably and courageously, even though they are serving sometimes under hostile conditions and hostile regulations. Nevertheless, they are doing it, and I think it’s a great act of courage and patriotism and honor on their part that they are doing that."

He has been active in the movement to repeal “Don't Ask Don't Tell” through his work with Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, and Soulforce.  He takes pride in having been a part of Soulforce since it’s founding in 1999 by Rev. Dr. Mel White,  "an organization that really challenges the untruths that are being perpetrated by churches and other religious institutions concerning GLBT folks."

Reflecting back on the integrity of his life and preaching thus far, Paul Dodd noted, "I began to find
my voice for social justice at Little Rock Central High School . Now I find myself speaking out because
I “can’t not” speak out. The scripture says, "if I don’t speak the stones will cry out" [Luke 19:40]. I think
the best part of my coming-out is that I am now able to have a voice, and able to speak out on what I
truly believe are important issues in our society, not only for gays and lesbians, but for other minorities
as well."

That story of his first face to face encounter with hate and discrimination, in Little Rock, is told below in his own words.

Memoirs of the Lost Years - Little Rock Central High School 1957-1958
by Paul Dodd

      I was a fifteen year old boy in 1957, hardly prepared for the tidal wave of cultural revolution which was about to sweep through Little Rock, our state, and our nation. Nothing I had ever learned in Sunday school or public school had equipped me for that fateful year at Central High School. Who could have imagined that nine well mannered and aspiring young black students would ignite such unbridled fear and unleash such unrestrained hatred? The scenes were surreal – police cruisers escorting the nine students as they arrived each morning for their classes, innocent young people approaching their school house shrouded with the ominous shield of armed soldiers, fixed bayonets atop the M1s carried by the elite troops of the famed 101st Airborne Division, bivouacs on the practice field, and armored personnel carriers forming an impenetrable fortress around Central High like some occupied war zone. Fierce battle cries echoed across the school yard from the unruly mob assembled on the other side of the street, their frightening epithets and shrill obscenities shouted within earshot of their own sons and daughters. They were egged on by preachers and politicians who filled the pulpits and papers with certain assurance of impending moral doom. This was evidence, they proclaimed, of sinful and heinous defiance of God’s division of the races. Few, as I recall, challenged the refusal of Governor Orville Faubus to honor federal mandates integrating public schools, but many defended the governor’s resolve to close our school and lock the students out.

      When Governor Faubus locked the doors to our schoolhouse, he also locked brutal nightmares and ugly scars in our memories. They still make haunting appearances from time to time, untamed by over 44 intervening years of personal history. The fear of a fifteen year old boy walking timidly toward a formidable line of battle ready soldiers, bayonets drawn, to show some student identification and gain passage to home room. A bayonet pressed firmly against my band uniform when I attempted to enter the wrong door before a football game. A protester led away bleeding, slashed by an irate soldier, when he attempted to defy military authorities. The morning motorcades announcing the arrival of my friend and fellow trombone player, whose father was mayor of Little Rock. The noisy mob across the street, the rock throwing, the rabid snarls and angry faces. Name calling by some of the white students when I attempted to befriend some of the black students. Pandemonium and cat calling in the cafeteria following a chili throwing incident. Sleeping with a paring knife under my pillow when my parents left me home alone. Riding the train to enroll in college without a high school diploma. And, between the two, lost somewhere between the preachers, the politicians, the courts, the protesters, the soldiers, and all the chaotic forces that colluded to steal our innocence, were the students in search of their classrooms. Yet, no lessons in geometry, biology, speech or marching band could match the greatest lessons of 1957. Life’s legendary lessons, the unforgettable ones, were the yet unwritten pages of human history. Those lessons were not in the school curriculum, nor recorded anywhere in our transcripts. Instead, they were written in our hearts, etched in our memories, and burned deeply into our passions. They are lessons that have shaped my theology, intensified my calling, influenced my career, inflamed my commitment to social justice, and anchored my relentless search for ultimate truth and personal integrity. 


      Now, over forty years after an illusive and hijacked graduation, Mr. Rudolph Howard, the distinguished black principal of Little Rock Central High School, has invited me back. For him to have done so during a serendipitous meeting with my daughter Christi, my granddaughter Caylie and me was reward enough. Mr. Jess Matthews was principal in 1957. Mr. Howard is principal in 2002. Sandwiched in between is a sometimes painful but doggedly redemptive history. September of 1957 saw me staring in disbelief from the band tower of Little Rock Central High, as a hostile mob assailed nine black students with violent threats and racial obscenities. September of this school year saw us all staring in disbelief as airplanes flew into the Pentagon and twin towers of the World Trade Center, piloted by violent and hostile suicide terrorists. In the pale shadow of such historical landmarks, is there hope? Is there redemption? Is there anything sacred amidst a landscape strewn with the wreckage of injustice and desperate acts of violence? The answer, for me, will finally come on May 29 as I sit in the presence of Mr. Howard and his graduating seniors. It will be affirmed as I walk across the stage and receive my high school diploma. For, in spite of horrendous forces that would shanghai freedom and deny liberty and justice for all, the dignity and indomitable spirit of this place gives witness to the power of good over evil. Indeed, truth does prevail! The magnificent edifice, now known throughout the world as Little Rock Central High School, is a memorial to that supreme truth, and the long and noble lineage of faculty members and students is the legacy of a nation’s commitment to that enduring principle.