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Faded Honors
Open Wounds

by

CTI2 George Richard Phillip Zimmerman,
USN (Discharged December 11, 1986)

On the morning of December 22, 2010, like countless numbers of this nation’s citizens, I cried when President Obama signed the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy and said, "Our people sacrificed a lot for their country, including their lives. None of them should have to sacrifice their integrity as well." 

At that moment, a floodgate of emotions and memories long suppressed filled my mind, for as amazing as this moment was… it was quite bittersweet for me.  I was both elated for those who are currently serving…. For they can  finally do so honestly, completely and unashamedly.  Yet I found that I also felt a sense of sadness for those of us who served in the Armed Forces of this nation who would not be able to share completely in this historic moment. 

My story is sadly similar to far too many of those who have honorably served our nation.  On December 11, 1986, after six years, five months and 17 days of honorable service, I wore my uniform for the last time.  On that date, my Navy Career ended as I signed my DD-214, received my Discharge papers and was dismissed for the last time.

Every story has a beginning… this is my story!

I grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Quite honestly, I was just another kid from Kensington  (which, at that time, was a blue collar working class neighborhood) who looked at the Navy as an opportunity to serve this nation and, if lucky, to see the world. I was one of thousands of young teenagers finishing High School across the city that year, but what made me stand out from the crowd was my natural acuity to quickly learn foreign languages.  By the time I graduated, I had mastered Latin and understood basic Arabic and Farsi languages, as well as Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs.  This gift made the local Navy Recruiter eager to meet me and let me know about the benefits of a Navy career and, more importantly, the opportunity to serve the nation as a Cryptologic Technician – Interpretive (CTI), a.k.a. Navy linguist.  With a sense of excitement and uncertainty, I signed the dotted line and on June 24, 1980, my Navy career began.

On August 30, 1980, after Completing Boot Camp at Naval Station Great Lakes, Illinois, I was transferred to The Defense Language Institute -Foreign Language Center in Monterey, California in order to study Modern Standard Arabic.  During my first week there, I discovered that I had landed into the middle of a “witch-hunt”, that is, a rabid search and purge of gay soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen.  I remember so many talented young people, from all of the uniformed services, being subjected to mean-spirited ridicule, mental and, sometimes, physical abuse at the hands of those who were entrusted as their military superiors, shipmates and those who represented the Naval Investigative Service (NIS) or its Armed Services counterparts.  I remember the deep sense of helplessness and fear that I felt…. I had just turned 18 and it felt like the weight of
the world had landed squarely on my shoulders.  Day after day, week after week, it seemed that there was a never ending conveyor belt of people who were turned in or “discovered” to be gay… and quickly processed out of the Navy or the other services.

Quite astonishing to me, I realized in boot camp that I was gay, but never acted on my feelings.  This realization was like the proverbial light bulb flashing over my head… I understood, for the first time, what caused the emotional turmoil I had faced in my teenage years.  I didn’t think twice about the matter, as I felt a sense of peace…. But that changed in Monterey.  After my first experience with an NIS Agent conducting a Security Clearance Interview, I knew that my recently realized awareness of my sexual orientation needed to be quickly hidden in the deepest, darkest closet I could find. If not, I had no future in the Navy.

After completing Arabic –Syrian Language training at DLI-FLC, I was transferred to Goodfellow Air Force Base, San Angelo, Texas for the second part of the training required to become a 9216, that is Cryptologic Technician/Arabic Crypto-Linguist.  Unlike the tragic chaos I had witnessed in Monterey, there seemed to be little activity by the Military Investigative Agencies, or so I thought.  It appeared that the Commanding Officer of the Navy Unit there took an interest in learning more about me, and had a sailor who was under investigation transferred to my dorm room.  Based upon some of the probing questions and conversations  my roommate and I had, it was clear that I had to carefully guard my secret. I began to censor my conversations, and made sure that I destroyed any mail that I received. Almost to the point of paranoia, I began to make calls off base, to ensure that I was not overheard speaking with friends or family. I was afraid that there could be something in my letters or conversations that would inadvertently reveal my secret self and abruptly end my career.

Upon Completing my training at Goodfellow AFB, I was transferred to my first assignment as a newly graduated CTISN: Naval Security Group Activity: Ft. George G. Meade, Maryland.  I was assigned to OPS-36, known then as Project Classic Paladin. This was a Direct-Support unit that supplied Arabic and Farsi Linguists to Commander Middle East Force and other Navy Stations.   

After a short period of acclimation to Paladin and its operations, I was deployed to the USS Coronado (AGF-3), Flagship of Commander, Middle East Force, which was based in Manama, Bahrain.  I quickly became accustomed to – and enjoyed --life at sea, became proficient in my target language and learned a second language in order to help with the processing of time-sensitive information.  Once my supervisor determined that I was “up-to-speed” on local operations and capable of translating and analyzing radio traffic in the second language, I was deployed to the USS Oliver Hazard Perry (FFG-7) and the USS Spruance (DD-963). On board these two ships, I got a taste of how different the fleet was from the Flagship.  Crews took on the personality of their Skipper.  The Coronado was comfortable, like a pair of well worn jeans.  Its crew seemed to be a perfect fit.  The Perry’s crew was really laid back and welcoming; the Spruance’s crew was serious but efficient!  It was onboard the Spruance that I had my first significant success as a crypto-linguist.  As a result of this success, I was awarded a Navy Achievement Medal, an unusual accomplishment for an E-3.

During these deployments, I became acutely aware of gay sub-cultures on board the ships. With all my heart, I wanted to be able to be part of those groups, but kept away from them in order to protect myself.  Quite frankly, on a crowded ship, I felt at times that I was very much alone.  So, to find some form of internal balance, I focused all my efforts and energy on becoming one of the best linguists at COMIDEASTFOR. I lived and breathed for my job.  I knew that I was doing something important for my country… and especially for the safety of the ships in the Persian Gulf. My evaluations all seemed to indicate that I was on the right track.   

After my first deployment, I was formally trained in Farsi at the National Cryptologic School.  Upon successfully completing that course, I was re-deployed to the Persian Gulf. Things had changed… The Coronado was replaced by the USS LaSalle (AGF-11), Manama’s skyline was beginning to grow, but there were some things still remained the same:   The LaSalle was painted white, like her sister ship, the Coronado, and The Desert Duck (Helicopter) continued to malfunction and make regular landings in the water. But the atmosphere in the Gulf seemed different.  Crews were on edge…There was an electric charge in the air… Tensions were growing.

In the years to follow, I was deployed to several warships that patrolled the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz, including:  USS Boone (FFG-28), USS Nicholson (DD-982), USS John Hancock (DD-981) and USS Stark (FFG31). I was honored to represent the Admiral’s Staff when the HMS Glamorgan conducted its tour of duty in the Persian Gulf.

My first enlistment ended on June 23, 1984, and in spite of my genuine fear of being discovered, I extended my tour of duty for one year at the request of the Navy.  There simply were not enough Farsi Speaking linguists to meet the needs of Commander, Middle East Force and local Federal Intelligence Agencies. As such, I felt that it was my duty to continue to serve on active duty.  On April 26, I was meritoriously promoted to E-5 (CTI2) and June 21, 1985, after serious soul searching, I re-enlisted for another four years. I wanted to complete projects which I had started that would make future deployed linguists more competent in the Persian Gulf operation.

Everything seemed to be going well.  In July, 15, 1985 I was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal and in September of that year, I was nominated as Operations Department Sailor of the Quarter.

My final direct-support deployment was aboard the USS Biddle (CG-34) for a Mediterranean Sea/Indian Ocean Tour from October 13, 1985 until March 06, 1986.   While initially somewhat unfamiliar with the Med Sea Arena, I quickly learned what was necessary in order to effectively perform my duties.  But life aboard this ship was different from all my previous experiences.  Unlike other deployments where the CT Detachments  were given separate quarters, I was berthed with the crew, and expected to do what they did and assigned to regular shipboard watches and duties.   Quite frankly, I enjoyed it. For the first time, I got a taste of the “regular” Navy, and began to make friends among the crew. This was something that did not happen on other ships.

One day, there were rumors of two guys discovered to be homosexual.  That evening, the Ship’s Chaplain made a stern comment about the situation.  At once both pleading and threatening, it was the strangest “good night” prayer I had ever heard in my life!  But this ominous warning made it clear that, more than ever before, I had to keep my defenses up… or risk becoming the next example of a “Hell-bound Book of Leviticus violator!”

During this tour, the USS Biddle was involved in a show of U.S. Resolve in the Libyan Littoral in November, 1986.  Having spent the majority of my service in the Persian Gulf, I was somewhat unfamiliar with the area of operations, but I did my research and endeavored to maintain the highest level of performance by plunging head first into the project. As in all other deployments, I was awarded a 4.0 evaluation for my service. Ironically, I found that I wanted to stay onboard the Biddle, and was disappointed when it was time to return to the States.

When I returned to Paladin, I was asked to develop and present a course to train junior Persian/Farsi Speaking Linguists and cross-train Arabic Speaking Linguists for Persian Gulf Direct Support operations.  Eventually, this course was to be presented to students at Goodfellow Air Force Base.  On August 26, 1986, I finished the project and was advised that the course was considered a highly professional training program by outside reviewers. As I sat at the computer station, cleaning up the texts I had written,  I remember hearing the Division Commander, say  “get that fag out of here”… It made me shiver... I wondered who he was talking about.  I soon found out.  One of the division Chief Petty Officers put his hand on my shoulder, told me to wrap up my project, lock my materials in the safe and follow him to the Security Office.  Once there, my Security badge was taken from me and I was escorted, in silence, to the Chief Master-At-Arms Office.  I was terrified.

I was held in suspense for a few days.  Then, early on the morning of August 29, 1986, I was told to get into dress uniform, as I was to be taken to Naval Investigative Service Offices at Annapolis.  Once there, I was placed in a room and waited for what seemed an eternity. The NIS Special Agent entered the room, clipboard in hand and tried to engage me in idle chit chat. She asked me why I was nervous and if I knew why I was there.  I told her that I was not really sure.  She began to play a cat and mouse game and her pleasant demeanor seemed to rapidly change as she began to ask questions about my family, friends, co-workers and my private life. 

The agent gleefully and dramatically turned over a piece of paper on the desk and pushed it towards me.  I turned the paper so that I could see it… I couldn’t believe what I was reading… I was being accused of Sodomy. 

At first, I laughed when I read the charge, because, from my understanding of the meaning of the word, it simply wasn’t true!  I listened to the agent’s endless series of accusations. After what seemed an eternity of back and forth verbal jousting, I told her that all she had was a vague suspicion, and that even in a military court, it was not enough to convict me.  She then said, “Oh, you are quite wrong, Petty Officer Zimmerman”.  I asked her what that meant.  She replied, “so that you are aware, we have copies of personal letters, transcripts of phone conversations, phone book numbers, and statements from witnesses.”  I couldn’t believe it. My heart sank. I now understood why it seemed that my mail was taking a long time to get to me, and why some of the envelopes had stamped comments posted on them.  Apparently, some letters were intercepted, opened and copied.

After an exhausting list of charges and pleas for me to just “tell the truth”, to “come clean”, “do the right thing.” The agent decided that the way to get me to admit to my “crime” was to threaten the careers of officers and other service members with whom I had worked. The breaking point for me was when she said, “Well, if we can’t get you to tell the truth, we can certainly ruin the career of your friend, Lt. X.  I simply could not believe what I heard… I sat in silence and asked why she would want to destroy the reputation and career of a good man who just gotten married.  She replied, “It’s either you or him. You decide.”

I simply could not let the Lieutenant’s career be destroyed by this agent’s agenda.  So, after a few minutes somberly reflecting on the matter, I sighed and said, “fine, you got me.”  The agent’s face suddenly lit up, and she quickly transformed back into the light-hearted, jovial person who had first entered the room that morning.  I remember thinking that she looked like she had just won the lottery… I guess, in a way, she did.

The agent began typing and re-typing the “voluntary” statement. In spite of the seriousness of the moment, I found it somewhat amusing to watch her furiously trying to type out my “confession.”  She made so many factual, grammatical and typo-graphical mistakes that I refused to sign several drafts that she prepared.  This frustrated her.  Finally, she said that I should just cross out anything that was not accurate and to add any statements that I felt were necessary. When she was done preparing her final draft, the agent asked me if I felt better about telling the truth about being gay.  Rather than answering her question, I asked her if she felt good about destroying a person’s career.  She replied, “It’s my job, gays are bad for morale and are known security risks.” She then added, “Besides, everyone knows that gays are not good in battlefields... they run away.”  I couldn’t believe what she said, as I had served in the Persian Gulf during the Iran/Iraq Tanker War and had experienced several search and rescue missions after merchant ship attacks. I had even been awarded a Humanitarian Service medal for helping evacuate and rescue victims of an Iranian Air Attack on a Merchant Vessel. “I asked her if she knew anything at all about my service… The agent replied “It doesn’t matter now… besides, you’re young. You’ll get over this.”

The agent told me that it would be good for me to offer an apology to the Navy.  I replied “I don’t think that I will ever regret going into the Navy. If you care about the people you work with, you reflect pride and professionalism. I do not regret being gay any more than a Catholic regrets being Catholic or a black person regrets being black.  I am what God made me.”  The agent frowned as she typed my statement and advised me that “they”, meaning the Navy Command, would not be happy with that comment and could take action, including the possibility of criminal prosecution. That comment scared me.

By late afternoon, I was dismissed and returned to Ft. Meade. In the morning, I reported to the Assistant Master-at-Arms, and was assigned toilet cleaning duty.  It was ironic… One day I was a respected linguist with a stellar career ahead of me; the next day I was a janitor. 

When the Chief Master-at-Arms returned from vacation, he reassigned me to an administrative job, as he felt it was inappropriate for me to be assigned to bathroom cleaning and other maintenance work.  Of course, the Assistant Master-at-Arms made the argument that I was a “fag” and should be assigned to the worst possible details.   The Master Chief was a kind, fair and professional person and made sure that I was not subjected to verbal abuse by those assigned to the Master-At Arms office.  I remember his kindness to this day. He never once judged me, but treated me with dignity and respect.  During this distressing time of my life, I needed to be reminded that I was, in fact, a human being.

I was assigned to the Master-at-Arms office until the day I was discharged.  Ironically, during this time, I was asked to report to the Command Office in order to translate documents and intercepted transmissions that no other linguist could understand.  After the third time this happened, I asked them to either reinstate me or stop asking me to do their work.  Sadly, they chose to stop asking me to do their work.

On November 6, 1986, I was advised that the Commanding Officer had recommended that I be granted an honorable discharge from the Navy.  The processing began, with blood tests drawn at Bethesda Naval Hospital to determine if I was HTLV-3 (now HIV) Positive.  If so, I was advised that I could be dishonorably discharged for “Destruction of Government Property”.  Fortunately, for my peace of mind, physical health, and discharge status, my blood work came back negative.

The Captain’s recommendation was carried out on December 11, 1986. That day, I was in a state of shock. I kept hoping, believing, praying that someone, somewhere, somehow would intercede on my behalf before it was too late. After all, my evaluations indicated that I was a good sailor, “recruiting poster sharp”, “invaluable”, “going to the top”… but all the praise and recognition did not seem to matter and, sadly, my prayer was not answered.

I read and signed my final evaluation.

To my surprise, the evaluation was a 4.0 rating. Three phrases immediately stood out:  “Assigned to the CMAA task force due to a loss of access as a result of alleged aberrant personal conduct.”;  “Petty Officer Zimmerman is an achievement oriented individual who accomplishes all assigned tasks efficiently and completely.  Instills a high degree of motivation in peers and subordinates through well-defined instructor skills, Petty Officer Zimmerman is not recommended for advancement or retention in accordance with MILPERSMAN 3630400.” and  “Petty Officer Zimmerman is clearly one of the top three Second Class Petty Officers of his division.  Resourceful; a self-starter; requires little to no supervision.  One of the most competent, reliable, and best qualified crypto-linguists in his second language.”  I struggled to read  the evaluation as I could not see clearly. My eyes were filled with tears.  The incredible indifference of the Yeoman who was processing my paperwork made the moment all the more unbearable and humiliating. Raising his voice several times, he went out of his way to make sure that those in the office knew exactly what was happening.  I remember the looks, the glares, the whispered comments, the snickers… But I also remember one civilian worker who seemed distressed at the way things were handled. 

I was then given my DD-214 to sign.  There it was for all to see: Discharged:  Homosexuality/Admission  Re-enlistment code: RE-4. Once I signed it, I was given the Honorable Discharge certificate and was told that I could go, as I now was a civilian. I had no further duty obligation to the Navy. I asked about my final paycheck and travel pay to return home.  I was told that I was not eligible for either due to the status of my discharge. 

Not one person I had worked with or for came to say good bye, good luck, or fair winds and following seas.  It seemed that the Navy had no further use for me. I was given two hours to check out of the barracks.  It was over.

Afterwards, I was invited to stay with friends in Baltimore. I sank into deep depression and wondered if life was really worth living.  I felt like every bit of my humanity and self worth was taken away from me by the very thing I had loved most dearly and devoted myself to completely.  In the quiet of the night, I was haunted by the NIS agent’s words, “It doesn’t matter anymore… You’ll get over it”

Christmas that year was very difficult. After all, how do you celebrate the destruction of a career? I kept thinking, “Was this really the thanks of a grateful nation?”

This past December marked the 24th anniversary of my discharge from the Navy.  The sting of betrayal that I felt all those years ago is just as strong and painful today.  Like many others, I had a career, opportunities and a future taken away simply because of my sexual orientation, which had absolutely no bearing on my ability to perform my duties as a crypto-linguist. Yes, I cried when President Obama signed the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy, for in spite of this historic moment, it was incomplete…there seemed to be justice for some --but not all -- of us who patriotically served this nation…. partial justice is NO justice at all. In the final analysis, my sexual orientation never interfered with my ability to effectively perform my duties… the Navy itself did.

During the signing of the Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, President Obama said:  “That is why I say to all Americans, gay or straight, who want nothing more than to defend this country in uniform:  Your country needs you, your country wants you, and we will be honored to welcome you into the ranks of the finest military the world has ever known.”

Do you really want us?  Do you really need us?  Will you really honor us?  Mr. President, please remember those of us who served and suffered in silence.  Those of us who patriotically served this nation deserve redress and relief from the abuse and needless stress we were forced to endure.  We deserve, at the very minimum, an apology from the Government we so proudly served.

Healing, for many of us, will begin when our Nation’s Leadership has the courage to admit that a grave injustice to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was carried out in the name of The United States of America.  The question remains, Will Our Nation’s Leaders have the courage and moral fortitude to admit that we were treated unjustly and endeavor to restore our honor, our dignity, our reputations and our careers?

When that day comes, we will all be able to share an historic victory, Mr. President.

Author Randy Shilts interviewed and included information about Petty Officer Zimmerman in his last book, Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military.  Today, Phillip Zimmerman is a Bishop of The Reformed Catholic Church, Corpus Christi Communion and provides HIV/AIDS Advocacy/Awareness Programs to at-risk communities. His Partner of 16 years, Stephen Wilson, shares his passion for advocacy and social justice.  Love can heal even the deepest wound.

Phillip Zimmerman is the author of “For the Convenience of the Government

  2011 Gay Military Signal