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Looking Back and
Forward With Pride

By John J. Kelly

Enlisting was not on my radar. I was exempt from service as the only son of a deceased decorated WWI veteran. I had even turned down an automatic appointment to West Point. But, there I was, waiting for the bus home to tell Mom I was quitting college after only three semesters. The bus station happened to have an Air Force recruiting office and I had more news for Mom by the time I got home.

Although I was well aware of whom I was attracted to, society disapproved. In the late 1950s, that who or what I was, was still a secret even to myself.  I could not possibly be one of those "queers" and so I saw no conflict in enlisting to serve my country.  Maybe joining the Air Force was subconsciously going to help me prove that. Frankly, I needed some direction in my life and felt this was the right move.

Basic training was a rude awaking; it was and still is for most recruits. Yet, I got into better shape than ever and discovered the discipline, teamwork and camaraderie of being a member of the United States Armed Forces. Still only eighteen years old, I was finding many things that had been missing in my life. Then they told me that all that testing they put me through showed I would be best suited to become a medical technician, a corpsman. My first reaction was pure fear, but the aptitude determination turned out to be remarkably correct.  I thrived in training and became a proud corpsman that loved his job.

My first assignment was Andrews Air Force Base, just outside Washington, DC.  I was working OJT (on the job training) to become a well-rounded medic and worked all the major departments from the emergency room to surgery. A year later I was transferred to Wheelus AFB in Tripoli, Libya. Now things were different to say the least. The base itself was not primitive but sure not state of the art. Tripoli was fascinating as was the country itself. I was assigned to the maternity and nursery as well as part of the emergency field hospital.

It was a much smaller base than many and the hospital was likewise a smaller and tighter unit.  And in that isolated place where

camaraderie was so important, there was an incident that resulted in my being called to report to the Commander’s office. I was suddenly under investigation for being a homosexual. Are you kidding?  How could such a thing have anything to do with me?  I was devastated and scared to death for my reputation and my career. I was not queer, honest.

It turned out that I had been caught up in a contrived sting operation that was part of a major “witch hunt” against homosexuals.  My roommates volunteered to testify on my behalf. Finally I was called in and advised that I was cleared based on what they called the “Queen for a Day” clause. It basically meant that I was not an active participant and did not pursue what was supposed to have happened. This classification was based on a theory that many young men do experiment.  To save my reputation I was offered reassignment anywhere in our European command, but I turned it down. My fellow medics and other airman had stood by me and I was confident the whole thing was behind me.

After fifteen months I was assigned to Francis E. Warren AFB, Cheyenne, WY. I was getting great performance reviews and made E-3, Airman First Class, ahead of schedule. I was pushed to not only reenlist but to sign up for a commissioning program to get a Bachelor’s degree in nursing. Vietnam had become a real war and the need for male nurses was huge. I had become a confident and respected corpsman. I was proud of what I was doing, so reenlisting, and taking the extra night school classes to qualify for the commissioning program was a no brainer. I became active in the local community, which garnered further official recognition. I was selected to attend the Non-Commissioned Officers Academy,
graduating second in my class. I won the speaking contest and was master of ceremonies for the graduation banquet. And yet, at this point in time, I was still confused as to my sexual identity.

Out of nowhere, I received orders to the US Air Force Academy Hospital. In those days (1965) this was a prestige assignment for which even enlisted men were hand picked. My career was on its way, a top assignment, only a few credits away from being qualified to attend Syracuse University. It felt right to be part of the medical field, helping those that needed care and understanding, sometimes in the most critical of times of their lives. The problem was that I was starting to realize that yes, I think I just might be homosexual.  Realizing the truth at last, I wondered if would be able to maintain the lie I now had to consciously live.  I had already survived one investigation, so no way would I get through another, especially in the Academy’s strict moral environment.

I had to take stock of my situation, of my personal versus professional life. For some reason I had not been promoted for some time and the commissioning program kept being put off. Was there something going on? I was now admitting to myself that I was living a lie and the fear of a dishonorable discharge was real. They pushed me to reenlist again and promoted me at the last minute, but I just didn’t have the confidence in a military career any longer. I wanted it, for myself and so I could continue to proudly serve my country, but it was time to be realistic. With the existing prejudice there was no one you could talk to, you just understood the axe could fall any
second. No one should live like that.  I regretfully did not reenlist, leaving behind a career I loved; taking with me the medical training and experience that was and still is so vital to our armed forces. A great deal of time and money had been spent getting me to this level of expertise and we both were going to be missing something.

I went on as a civilian to become a recognized and successful hotel and resort sales and marketing executive. I had a White House clearance to be President Gerald R. Ford’s Vail, Colorado coordinator and held offices in several trade organizations including being Colorado Chapter President and National Convention Chairman for the International Hotel Sales and Marketing Association. I did quite well for myself but remained in the closet for most of that time. The fear of exposure was always there even in civilian life in those pre Stonewall days.

In those days any executive found out to simply be homosexual could be disgraced for life.  It was not until decades later, as civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights became politically correct, that many gay men could even imagine aspiring to any sort of respectable career beyond menial work, for fear of discovery.  The stress of daring to take that risk was not much different from serving in silence in the military at that time.  I thought I had escaped that constant fearful torment when I left the Air Force; but it only got worse as I became more successful and prominent in my civilian career.  Today, that destructive stress is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  It can involve alcoholism and extreme anxiety.  My career collapsed and I became homeless.  In a treatment program, a psychologist spent quite sometime discussing the damage that can be done by living a lie, especially living two lives. I finally was able to come to terms with society’s discrimination and accept that their bigotry was their problem.

During that time, I saw an article about a group of gay veterans who were going to meet to march in Denver’s 1994 gay pride parade.  I went. Things changed. The pride I had always had as a member of the US armed forces returned at the same time I finally became proud of being gay. I marched as part of the color guard leading the parade. All the stored emotions came out along that parade route. Crowds cheered us for our service to their country and for being gay. The tears flowed and a career as an activist began.

Having regained my personal pride and self-confidence, I worked for Blue Cross for many years and was open as a gay man. I became active with the formation of the Colorado Chapter of the American Veterans for Equal Rights. I served four years as President of the chapter as well as Chairman for three national conventions. I led a program that raised funds and provided meals for Urban Peak, a homeless youth center.

Poor health forced me out of action for a couple of years, but I have returned with a vengeance. I now serve as a member of the SAGE of the Rockies board of directors at Denver’s GLBT Center, a member of the SAGE fall 2010 Convention committee and was recently appointed to the Mayor’s Denver GLBT Commission. I’m proud to say that I have already sponsored a resolution that was passed unanimously by the GLBT Commission in support of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. 

I have come full circle. I was a proud Air Force corpsman who would have gladly served until retirement. But I am now a proud veteran, a proud gay veteran and a proud gay man. I am now very happy and proud to serve my fellow GLBT Americans.

  2010 Gay Military Signal