Amidst a mass of young men, I file off the cheap Oklahoman charter bus and into the void of night. It’s around 2am and I’ve been traveling since 6am the previous morning: LAX ->DFW->LAW. I’ve just stepped into a dimly lit cove of light, surrounded by low ceilings, beige walls and aluminum benches. We all sit, for what seems like another hour or 2 in the frigid air of an early Summer morning in Lawton, OK’s Fort Sill : “The Home of the Artillery.” The Army calls this “reception.” I’d call it uncomfortable, exhausting and probably the nicest part of Basic Training… other than the day it concluded 9 weeks later.
This was my first experience upon becoming a member of the military. Later would come regular transportation, over the course of two months, by “Cattle Car“; also the routine hazing of soldiers (most often vocally) by Drill Sergeants but often more physically by your fellow soldiers late at night (similar to what was famously portrayed in the film Full Metal Jacket). But more than anything, you generally spend your time avoiding confrontation and to not show weakness in any way (an excellent story about this). Sure there was the excessive drill training we had to endure, obsessive cleaning of things (weapons, toilets, chrome plated stair plates…) and generally being in a status of perpetual sweat. It sucked. If you haven’t read up on what the now 10-week process entails check it out and know that “Boot Camp” for the Marines must suck twice as much.
Of course this is what the training is for, to make you tough but it’s a trial of endurance like most will never encounter and I just couldn’t imagine how much more difficult it would be if you were deemed different than everyone else. Drill Sergeants routinely voiced missives about how “what we’re doing is weeding out the weak” and thus the soldiers in their stead would take these words to heart, when on their own time they’d punish those whom during the day were shown to be weaker than the rest. This was most always in retaliation to the Drill Sergeant punishing the entire platoon for the weakness of one or two soldiers. This tradition became tiresome fast and while I was never subject to this sort of in fighting, I had a few moments of failure and weakness that were trying, plus I saw a number of instances where those perceived as weak were at night beaten with bars of soap, one tripped down a flight of stairs or even some who were pushed to the point of total meltdown (two trainees in my platoon were driven to the point of psychological breakdown, one finished training and the other was sent home, deemed unfit to continue). Many others, who simply couldn’t overcome what were perceived to be physical or mental weakness, left by way of the railroad track, heading North toward Oklahoma City in the middle of the night…
Now this is what it’s like to be a straight, white male in the Army’s Basic Training. What would it be like to be an effeminately gay black man in Basic Training? There was one such young soldier who fit this description during the course of my initial training and he went by the name “Peaches.” At one time I may have known his last name, but I never officially met him nor talked to him because he was in a different platoon, so I don’t know if he finished Basic Training, nor whether he continued on into regular active service. I like to think that he did because I just can’t fathom what his experience must have been after being treated unfairly would hope he was able to overcome it. From what I could tell, surprisingly enough, he was almost treated like a rock star amongst his cohorts, yet there was this underlying derision that I could more feel, than hear. He, like any instance that dealt with a circumstance or one deemed gay, was immediately branded as “don’t ask don’t tell“, a phrase commonly used in jest during those relatively early days of that infamous policy, now apparently gone forever.
It’s difficult to completely understand what it’s like to have lived under this discriminatory military invective over the course of five years (I was “in” from 1997-2002) but I can only imagine that it couldn’t have been easy. What I can tell you is that repealing this method of suppressing personal objectivity isn’t going to inflict damage upon a war-time military. This is the greatest farce of the DADT debate, amongst others. Take it from General Wesley Clark who evoked exactly this response two weeks ago, in essence stating that this issue, in the eyes of the military would rank in “importance as a 2 on a scale of 1 to 10.” The most important issue to a soldier in wartime is survival and trust. Knowing your buddy is gay means little when an already established kinship, based on personal survival, is essential to everyone’s continued success. It would have no serious impact and take roughly six months of implementation and training to bring the entire force up to speed with this change. For more details on why a repeal will find success amongst our military’s ranks, look no further than the minimal impact a similar repeal had on our closest ally, Great Britain, in December of 2002.
I welcome it with open arms knowing that those who oppose serving along side LGBT members, as has been made clear through the military’s study on the effects of DADT on their service members, will either have to put up and stay in the service or shut up and leave if this wasn’t what they signed on for. That’s fine and if necessary, give them honorable discharges for their service, I’d just rather not see the military sweep these feeling under the rug, enabling discrimination to continue in secret or in training, where the oppressed minds of soldiers are told not to divulge the details of their trials. More importantly, if it takes purging 100’s of soldiers who disagree, it should only make the military stronger, yet still keep the scales imbalanced after the discharge of 13,425 presumed LGBT soldiers, through 2009.
With or without DADT in place, those soldiers who want to serve their country are going to do it whether they are of a different ilk or not, for it is our diversity that makes America strong, not individual attitudes. Conversely, these heroes personify the definition of patriotism: to know the difficult tumult you’re about to self-inflict upon your own personal constitution and to do it in the face of scrutiny. I can’t think of any persons more apt to deal with conflict than those who have been tested time and time again, even by those whom they’d consider their peers and mentors. These service members make the trials of my short military experience pale in comparison and I’m now even more beholden to their sacrifices, as I’d hope all others would be. Yet from here forward, all soldiers will be judged by the same criterion; gone are the dark clouds of suspicion, leaving only the specter of the deliberately intended trials asked of all whom don a uniform, in ready sacrifice of the freedoms we all enjoy. They now enjoy this freedom too.