On this Veteran's Day I decided to write about my experiences in the Army.
Not only is it a cathartic experience for me to deal with the conflicted emotions I have, but the recent repeal of DADT seemed to push me in this direction since I'm also a gay veteran.
My story below the fold...
I grew up in the time of Reagan in Brainerd, MN, a small tourist town. My mom raised me and my younger brother alone, so needless to say money was always an issue with two growing boys with teenage appetites. I never thought of ourselves as poor though, since we got a lot of help from my grandmother and my mom's sisters. We always had clothes for school and enough to eat and a bed to sleep in so we were better off than others, but when I graduated high school it was obvious that my mom would not be able to help me pay for college. Like a lot of other young men and women in my position the lure of military service to pay for college was irresistable, so I made the decision to join the Army after gratuation. This was May, 1988...
The first thing you learn in the military, and which they spend months beating into you, is that you are no different than the other men there with you. You are just a number among many other numbers. Basic training is not only used to teach you what you need to know to be a soldier, but also to extinguish every trace of individuality in order to work as a team. You start out with the same haircut (short!), the same clothes, and the bed you sleep in is exactly the same as everyone else's. The only thing that sets you apart from everyone else is the name on your uniform and your rank, and rank is the only status symbol that matters. For a shy kid that never wanted to be the center of attention, this seemed like a good fit.
My basic training was at Ft. Jackson, SC...in JULY. Wow...it was hot!
For a someone who spent his whole life in Minnesota, the heat was something that I had never experienced before. I ended up adjusting to it well, but the unlucky kid from Barrow, AK was a different story. He ended up being a heat casuality the entire time he was there. Thank God that the Army took the heat seriously and never put us in danger of heat-related injuries. My other memory from basic training (other than the drill sergeant yelling at us a lot) was my first experience with grits during meals. I had always had Cream Of Wheat for breakfast, and since it looked the same, I thought that's what it was. However, the first time I had grits topped with milk & sugar I realized my mistake. :-)
After 8 weeks of basic training learning how to be a soldier, the Army sent me to Advanced Individual Training (AIT) at Goodfellow Air Force Base, TX. This is a combined service training base for Military Intelligence, so there was Army, Air Force, Marines & Navy training there. However, the only plane on base was on a pedestal at the base enterance. The runways were only used for running on, which is hell on your shins. My memories of this place was that the marines always used to run in the mornings in combat boots carrying a long telephone pole, and that they had a reserved table at a local bar called The Shark. Heaven help you if you wanted that table for yourself.
The Army then sent me to Fort Huachuca, AZ for additional training. This base is only a few miles from the Mexican border, so it was pretty much in the middle of nowhere and really hot but without the humidity of SC or MN. There was also a radar blimp on base that tracked drug smugglers coming across the border. I remember getting sunburned here so bad that I had blisters, which hurt a lot wearing cotton shirts.
After training, I was stationed at Ft. Benning, GA. This was the first time that I actually had a job and regular hours, and freedom to come and go as I pleased. I was very happy working in the Military Intelligence field, since I worked with some of the smartest people the the Army. The Captain I worked for was a big Monty Python fan, and since my name is Brian he always used lines from "Life of Brian" whenever he called me..."Oh BRIAN!!!" :-)
It was also while I was here that I went to war for the first time...
When Iraq invaded Kuwait, it was more of a surprise to everyone else than it was for me and my coworkers. One benefit of being in Military Intelligence is that you have a better view of what's happening with world events then the rest of the military because of the classified intelligence that we get. The Iraqi Army was outfitted and trained by the Soviet Union, so we saw all the signs of the upcoming attack. However, it wasn't long before everyone was told to be ready to deploy to Saudi Arabia. The worst part was calling my mom and telling her that we would be leaving for SW Asia, but couldn't tell her where or when we would be leaving. Our division was one of the first to go to Saudi Arabia, and made up the "Shield" that prevented Iraq from invading Saudi Arabia. It was a risk, because early on our numbers were few enough that Iraq could have caused a lot of damage if they decided to attack us. Meanwhile, all my relatives back home were concerned with my safety. My grandma back home was glued to her television because she was worried. It's nice that they were concerned about me but I feel bad that they worried so much.
I won't comment a lot here about war in general, since others are better at it than I am and I don't feel worthy compared to those serving now in Iraq and Afghanistan. I've never experienced getting shot at or having to kill someone else in order to survive. But I've experienced enough to know that I've had my fill of death and dying. I've driven through the proverbial valley of death and smelled the stench of burning flesh, wondering if that bump our truck just went over was merely a bump, or a charred arm or leg. I've met soldiers & marines since who are so gung-ho to go and kill people, and it pisses me off because war is not as glamorous as they think. Even if you never fire a weapon, it is long stretches of boredom spent making sure scorpions aren't in your boots or your bed, and the entertainment for the day is watching a fight between a scorpion and a snake and betting who'll win. It's endless rounds of playing spades or hearts or gin rummy. But it wasn't all bad of course. I remember when Steve Martin came to visit us on his USO tour, and I remember the amazingly gracious people of Saudi Arabia & Iraq and adorable kids asking us for food and candy. And this is also the time when I was forced to deal with being gay, which was difficult at the time but ultimately a great thing.
Until this time, I knew that I was different but didn't really accept it. I would pray every day for God to make me straight, and I suppose a part of the reason I joined the Army was a subconscious attempt to do just that. I think this is a common theme for many gay soldiers, who feel the need to accomplish something big as a result of the wider world telling us that we're evil and something's wrong with us. I'm sure it was with me, at least subconsciously. Anyways, the event that changed all of that and forced me to come to terms with my sexuality was having the poor judgement to make a pass on a straight soldier while in Saudi Arabia. (What can I say? My gaydar was still under construction!) Unfortunately, he didn't take it well and while he didn't beat me up he went and told his First Sergeant, who then told mine, who asked to talk with me about it. I never went to talk with him, and since we had better things to do I guess he let it go...lucky for me. I was a good soldier and a hard worker who, because of stop-loss, was there to stay for the remainder of the war no matter what happened. I'm sure it didn't make sense for him to do anything. However, this did cause me to come to terms with how I saw myself and my sexuality. It no longer made sense to think of myself as straight when I nearly got in trouble for hitting on another guy. That began a journey for me that many gay men have also traveled. First of all, I stopped asking God to make me straight. Afterall, how many prayers do you have to pray before you realize that God has already answered your prayers and is telling you to be happy the way he made you? While I still had a lot of growing to do, this started the journey to self-acceptance for me.
After Desert Storm, my life at Ft. Benning became increasingly difficult. While there was no one that was openly hostile, there were rumors going around about me because of what happened in Saudi Arabia, so when an opportunity came to be transferred to South Korea I took the chance to escape all the rumors.
I enjoyed South Korea a lot. Not only was the culture a lot different, but the military bases there were different than in the United States in that they were closed bases where you had to show your ID to enter at the gate. We also got to drive a lot there, which was interesting because the people there were incredibly bad drivers. Riding a bus there is a hair-raising experience as the bus careens down the road missing other cars by what seems like milimeters. Luckily, they have a good train system so I prefered riding them instead. The country was also constantly on alert from attack by the north, so all the roads were built to that purpose. Not only were they all wide enough for military convoys, but every now and then you would go through what looks like a tunnel only to realize that instead of a tunnel it was a giant block of concrete suspended over the road. In the event of invasion, it would drop onto the road preventing the north koreans from traveling south on the road. Pretty ingenious, as long as there wasn't any malfunctions. My visit to the Demilitarized Zone was one of my best memories. To be on the most heavily armed border in the world was surreal to say the least. The propaganda on both sides and the mind games they play was interesting. The more you learn about North Korea, the stranger it gets.
Outside of one of the gates of the base was where all the bars were that catered to the military guys, where the local girls would ask you to buy them a drink and keep you company, and the more you bought the friendlier she got. They also never told you that each drink cost $10. The girls were the reason the gates at the base had boxes full of free condoms available to every soldier leaving, but even with those available there were many guys that had to go to the clinic to be treated for STD's because they couldn't bother to grab a condom as they left. The really memorable events happened in the winter, since there is a hill outside the gate called suicide hill, which as it sounds was pretty steep, and was increasingly hard to negotiate after a fresh coat of snow and/or too much Soju at the bars. Guys would come through the gate with all manner of injuries from trying to get up that hill, from bruises to broken noses to anything you can imagine. It sounds mean, but it was pretty funny to see how many people got beat up by that hill on their way back to the base.
I spent over a year in Korea before I finally left the military, and had the opportunity to continue dealing with my sexuality. It wasn't always easy, especially since I had to remain closeted, but I got through it in one piece after serving my 4 years. It's interesting to see how the military has changed since then regarding gays. In my experience, the officers were the friendliest since all of them had been to college and had friends that were gay. The younger enlisted guys were more homophobic and macho. However, it seems like that has now been reversed. Many of the younger enlistees have had friends that were gay, even from small towns, so it's not that big of a deal anymore. The repeal of DADT was a great thing, but there will still be issues that surface as a result of bigots in the military. Afterall, we are still dealing with racism in the Army decades after integration. I don't expect these problems to go away anytime soon.
So now, here I am living as an out gay man in Minneapolis, with gay friends, singing in a gay choir and working for a gay-friendly company. I have no problems telling people I'm gay, but few of my friends also know me as a veteran. It's not that I'm ashamed of it, but being gay has more value in my current life than being a veteran has. My status as a veteran doesn't really affect me unless I'm discussing military or veterans issues, but a part of me feels like I need to integrate the two now that DADT is repealed. I'm still not sure how to do that, but I'm happy that being gay will no longer be an obstacle to getting involved.
Thank you for reading. I know that this was long and kind of rambling, but I appreciate you taking the time to listen to my experiences as a proud gay veteran.
Happy Veterans Day!!
P.S. I will happily answer any questions you have in the comments.