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Conversations with veterans

by Denny Meyer

I've spoken with quite a few LGBT veterans over the years, from admirals and generals to a most ordinary WWII private first class.  The medals and ribbons they bear on their chests could fill a museum and should.  From Valley Forge forward LGBT heroes and heroines have sacrificed their personal freedom for patriotic service.  It was Gay Pioneer Dr. Franklin Kameny who, describing his combat service, as a private, against the Nazi war machine in Europe in WWII, told me, "I was just an ordinary soldier."  Imagine!  Every word that passes his lips is pure history; and I have felt privileged to be able to sit and converse with him, and so many others.

We live in incredible times at the dawn of the 21st century.  In preceding decades, I spoke with Vietnam veteran Leonard Matlovich and Korean War veteran Harvey Milk, gods  of the gay revolution who had walked the earth like ordinary mortals in the 1970s.  And this year I have met twice with Lt. Dan Choi, who served in Iraq and then, like Leonard and Harvey, had the courage to come home and speak out about who he is.

I spoke with a sailor who was a ship's barber, a nuclear submarine skipper, a Navy psychiatrist, a Navy journalist, an Army intelligence officer, the first Marine injured in the current war in Iraq, a drill sergeant, a half dozen WWII veterans, Korean War veterans, Vietnam War veterans, Iraq combat veterans, an admiral, two generals, Airmen, Sailors, Soldiers, Marines, Guardsmen and Coasties, recruits, sergeants, petty officers, a warrant officer, lieutenants, majors, colonels, linguists, cooks, cryptographers, weapons experts, mechanics, gunners, chaplains, Black veterans, White veterans, a Native American veteran, Asian American veterans, Hispanic veterans and more; all gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender; all proud to have determinedly served their country.

Every time I speak to a vet, humbled to be one among them, I am in awe as they tell me their stories.  I have a question that I ask nearly every one, "When you volunteered, you knew who you were (gay, lesbian, bi, and or transgender); WHAT were you thinking!?"  Not one hesitated; to a man or woman, each said, "I wanted to serve my country." 

What kind of people are we, who have chosen to be warriors?  Imagine having the nerve to ask an heroic Tuskegee Airman where he got the idea that he could be a war pilot.   Only a fool would ask such questions.  There are a few people among us in our nation who have the courage to step forward to serve; being gay or straight, black or white, makes no difference at all.  And yet, members of minorities who volunteer must have a stronger commitment and vision to see beyond the discrimination they endure in order to serve the cause of freedom.

Proponents of DADT repeal speak about fairness and readiness; but gay service members and veterans talk about patriotism.  Opponents obsess about advances and eyeballs.  But our young men and women are not going through training and going to Iraq to love; just like their straight counterparts, those they love are back home worried sick day and night for their entire deployment.  No one signs away his life to put himself in harm's way where he can get his legs blown off or brains bashed in just so he can sneak a look at some buddy's behind in a shower.  Our men and women train by crawling through mud and barbed wire with live ammunition flying over their heads, learn the technology of war and the enforcement of peace, rise before dawn, run miles, eat lousy food, give up their security and peaceful lives and love because they want to be a part of something greater than themselves; they want to serve in the world's premier force for freedom.

Those who served in Vietnam and before told me that they "served in silence."  Some joined even before they realized who they were, particularly during WWII, eager to do their duty along with all other Americans.  Until recently, the most common experience has been to serve in silence for two years, four years, ten and twenty years or, in the case of flag officers I've spoken with, for more than thirty years.  Imagine the loneliness of sacrificing ever finding someone to love for all that time!

Several years ago, a retired general spoke to a group of LGBT vets gathered in Washington DC.  This man, with a chest full of medals, who had commanded and been responsible for thousands of troops, their security and that of our nation, wept when he described the sacrifice of love for over three decades of the best years of his life.  I thought my heart would burst, hearing his story.  And this past month, I spoke with a 71 year old transgender woman who had served for 37 years including service as a Sea Bee Purple Heart combatant in Vietnam.  Where does such courage and commitment come from!?

I will never run out of veterans to talk with, nor stories to tell.  There are over a million of us LGBT veterans, each with a story to tell of quiet personal sacrifice; who, along with 26 million American veterans living today, served our nation.

This past weekend, along with millions of other Americans, I watched the funeral proceedings of a man who had spent a lifetime of personal pain and loss while never wavering in his commitment to his nation's ideals.  He lost his eldest brother in battle in WWII and his next two brothers to assassinations, and on through his life suffered seeing illness and injury befall those he loved.  When he suffered setbacks due to personal failings as a young man, he joined the US Army and served two honorable years as a Private First Class in order to reorient his goals and aspirations.  He went on to serve us as a member of congress for nearly 50 years.  Senator Kennedy was committed to seeing to it that all Americans share the same rights.

In his eulogy to Senator Kennedy, President Obama said in part,"Through his own suffering, Ted Kennedy became more alive to the plight and suffering of others — the sick child who could not see a doctor; the young soldier sent to battle without armor; the citizen denied her rights because of what she looks like or who she loves or where she comes from." (nytimes.com, Aug. 29, 2009)

This coming autumn, following Senate hearings on DADT, Senator Kennedy had planned to introduce the Senate bill to repeal the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy so that, at last, all patriotic Americans could choose to serve their country openly in Pride regardless of whom they happen to love.  Who will have the courage and force of commitment to lift that torch and carry on with his goal?  One million patriotic LGBT vets, seventy thousand on active duty, and thousands of young Americans with the courage to step forward and serve their country, await.

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On October 10th, 2009, at 2 PM, Dr. Frank Kameny and LT Dan Choi, along with other gay veterans, will speak at a memorial service at the grave of Leonard Matlovich at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington D.C.

  2009 Gay Military Signal