Kole Welsh decided to enlist in the military when he was 16 years old. “The circus wasn’t taking applications,” he says, laughing. “And it was the only way to get out of Dodge.”
His relationship with his parents, Jehovah’s Witnesses who he says were planning to send him to a conversion therapy camp to try to change his sexual orientation, was already so strained that his aunt was acting as his legal guardian. For Kole, who has known he was gay for as long as he can remember, serving in the Army—even under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy then in effect—seemed like the best path to true independence; so he convinced his aunt to sign the paperwork giving consent for him to join at 17. She signed off, he says, because “my family thought that joining the military was a way for me to become the respectable and masculine man I was expected to be.”
In late 2003, Kole, then 18 years old, deployed to Iraq, where his unit took over interrogations at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, replacing the unit whose 11 members were later court-martialed for human-rights violations. He served as an interrogation analyst for a year. At five-foot-four and 140 pounds, with what he calls a “chirpy little voice,” he says he got two nicknames from his brothers-in-arms during that deployment: “Chihuahua” and “feisty little bitch.”
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell set up a really odd situation,” he says, “where for a guy like me it’s pretty obvious, and yet people are not supposed to talk about it.”
But he was smart, worked hard, and, despite his small stature, maintained one of the highest physical fitness scores in his unit. He won an award for good conduct, another for joint service achievement, and a third for service in the global war on terrorism. And though he caught guff from his fellow soldiers, his commanders were impressed. At the end of his deployment, he was recommended for a program called “Green to Gold,” essentially an ROTC scholarship for active duty enlisted men who want to become officers. The Army would pay for Kole to complete his undergraduate degree, and he would return to active duty as a second lieutenant.
In February, 2007, during Kole’s second year studying at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., he met a man named Kevin, then 23, through mutual friends. Kevin was a private first class in the Army, and he’d just been assigned to the nearby base, Ft. Lewis (now Joint Base Lewis-McChord). The two began dating almost immediately, but kept the new relationship private—under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy that until 2011 banned homosexuals from serving openly, they had little choice.
Just weeks after they started dating, Kevin and Kole were invited to have a drink with a staff sergeant from the base, a man they’d met—as they had each other—through mutual friends. When asked whether the man was gay, Kole says, “no,” and then takes a long pause. “There’s a group of closeted men in the military who don’t really recognize themselves as being gay,” he continues. “But they’re still men who have sex with men.”
They had beers with the staff sergeant, beers that Kole suspects had been drugged with a sedative like GHB, because soon both of them were incapacitated. That night, Kole says, both he and Kevin were sexually assaulted by the staff sergeant. Neither of them immediately reported what had happened. “When you bring attention to yourself like that, it’s a death knell to your advancement,” says Kole, discussing his story publicly for the first time.
“I was working really hard, and I didn’t want it to affect everything I was supposed to be doing … Basically, we didn’t want to deal with it. We just said, ‘what a dirtbag,’ and tried to stay away from him.”
That June, Kole started the ROTC training camp, a summer program that was part of the scholarship and required him to take a physical exam. Shortly afterward, following a day of field exercises, Kole was called into a room where seven officers were waiting for him. He was told that he had tested positive for HIV, and that he was therefore ineligible for military service. (As a cadet, he wasn’t considered active duty, and he says they made it abundantly clear that day that the Army therefore wasn’t liable for any medical care or benefits related to his diagnosis.) He was discharged within 24 hours.
Because of Kole’s test result, Kevin got tested, too. The result was the same. But because Kevin was already active duty, he wasn’t simply out as Kole was. The costs of his medical care were covered by the Army’s medical command and he would later be eligible for additional benefits from Veterans Affairs. But medications were expensive and, according to Kole, the military’s medical command at the time followed an antiquated set of guidelines—one that didn’t begin treatment until a patient’s T-cell count had dropped so low that the virus had already turned into full-blown AIDS. (The U.S. Army’s Office of Public Affairs did not reply to a request for comment on the military’s guidelines for treating HIV and AIDS.) Kole and Kevin went to the University of Washington medical center, an hour north in Seattle, where they joined an early intervention program covered by the state, and started a trial of medication whose purpose was to limit transmission.
“There’s a group of closeted men in the military who don’t really recognize themselves as being gay, but they’re still men who have sex with men.”
It was only after other gay men that Kole and Kevin knew in the service began coming back with the same diagnosis that they pinpointed the Staff Sergeant as the common point of contact, and thus presumably the original source. “Look, all these people who spent time with him, they’re positive now,” Kole says. “That’s when we realized what was going on.”
At that point, there was little left to lose, and both Kole and Kevin told their superiors that they had been sexually assaulted by a noncommissioned officer, and that they believed that they had contracted HIV as a result. Both say they were continually told versions of “it’s out of our jurisdiction” and “there’s nothing we can do” by the military’s Criminal Investigative Command and on-base attorney. Kole, who laughingly describes himself as “tenacious,” wouldn’t let it drop: he appealed to multiple offices to push for an investigation into the matter.
Their efforts were rebuffed, Kole says, and when Kevin reported his assault to a military attorney on the base, he was told nothing could be done because the military “couldn’t sue itself.”
Kole recalls the summer of 2007 as a maddening time for the new couple. He’d eventually filed a complaint with the civilian police, but the Staff Sergeant held on to his position in the Army and they saw nothing being done that would have prevented the man from assaulting and infecting others.
And every few days, they made the two-hour trip to Seattle to get the early treatment that they said the military medical center wouldn’t provide. The doctor they were working with there called the head of infectious disease at Ft. Lewis, Kole says, and made a scientific argument for giving Kevin early treatment. “He said, ‘I’m a clinician. I’m not a whipping boy for some researcher up at the University of Washington,’” Kole recalls.
“We took care of each other,” Kole says of their struggles during that period. “We only had each other.”
On July 31, 2007, just six months after meeting, Kevin and Kole were joined in domestic partnership. It was the first day that Washington State was granting the status to same-sex couples, and the two young men were among the first to line up. Since then, they’ve used the same last name: Welsh. By then, with Kole discharged and Kevin still fighting to get basic treatment from the medical command, neither of them were concerned about how their partnership, and Kevin’s name change, might affect their standing in the military.
The union was driven as much by practicality as it was by love, says Kole. Once they were partnered, it made it easier to seek out shared medical care for their HIV status, and seemed to make medical providers feel more comfortable allowing them both in the room when treatments and prognoses were discussed. And navigating the bureaucracy of Veterans Affairs is much easier with the shared surname, Kole says. “The domestic partnership was a necessity so that we’d be able to help each other get medical care … but it laid the groundwork for the relationship we have now.”
Two months after their diagnosis, the colonel at the medical center relented, giving in to the demands of Kole, Kevin, and their outside doctor and giving Kevin the early treatment he’d started in Seattle. But even then, Kole had to file a complaint with the base’s director of clinical affairs before he was allowed in the room with Kevin during treatment, having first been told, he says, “we’re the Army. We don’t do domestic partnerships.”
Five years later, Kole, now 27, and Kevin, 29, live together in Seattle, along with their pets: two Australian Shepherds and two chinchillas. Kevin left the Army in 2008 under a Secretarial Authority discharge, granted so that he could pursue medical treatment. Both are now students at Bellevue College: Kole hopes to go to law school; and Kevin is studying biochemistry, hoping to become an AIDS researcher.
They are healthy: the early treatment they received for their HIV has so far kept both of their virus counts so low as to be nearly undetectable, and neither of them would be infectious toward others. They are even planning to have a child via a surrogate next summer; a technique called “sperm-washing” means that there’s no danger of passing on the illness.
The man they say assaulted them, meanwhile, sits in prison in Washington State. A year and a half after receiving Kole’s police complaint, the county prosecutor charged him with second-degree assault for intentionally infecting Kole with HIV. The staff sergeant pled guilty, in a deal that both kept him off of the sex-offender registry and prevented the prosecutor from bringing similar charges on behalf of Kevin and the other men alleged to have been infected on the base. He is serving a five-year sentence.
For Kole, it was a satisfying outcome. “I don’t blame him, really,” he says. “I was more concerned with just getting the guy treatment so that he wasn’t giving this to anyone else.” Navigating the Army medical system, he continues, gave him and Kevin a certain sympathy for their assailant.
“Instead of treating this person medically and giving him what he needed in order to get over it and thrive, they were waiting for him to get sick enough until his immune system was suppressed enough that they could chapter him out of the service,” says Kole. It’s sad that this situation could have been prevented if the Army medical command was less stigmatizing in its care.”
That’s why Kole requested that the man’s name be withheld from this story, though it’s a matter of public record. It’s also why, on Sept. 29, Kole and Kevin joined 17 other active and former service members in filing a lawsuit against the current Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, and his predecessors at the Pentagon, alleging that the department’s failure to take seriously the issue of sexual assault, retaliation, and rampant misogyny amounted to a violation of the plaintiffs’ civil rights.
Pentagon spokeswoman Cythia O. Smith said that because of the pending litigation, she could not comment on the men’s claims. “Secretary Panetta has repeatedly stated that there is no place for sexual assault in the military or at the Department of Defense,” she said. “Sexual assault is an affront to basic human values. It is a crime that hurts survivors, their families, their friends, and their units. In turn, sexual assault reduces overall military readiness.” Department of Justice spokesman Mitchell Rivard said that his office had no comment on the suit.
Kole traveled to San Francisco for the press conference announcing the filing of the suit; Kevin, who’s much more introverted, stayed home in Seattle. It was the first time that Kole had spoken publicly about what had happened to him, and reached by phone later that evening, he sounded exhausted, but also relieved and determined to continue, in his words, to hold “Panetta’s feet to the fire.” But later that week, he told me that when he got back home that Sunday, he’d spent the whole day hiding in his house.
“I had a moment of, ‘Oh, crap,’” he said. “I’m suing the Secretary of Defense of the United States. I’ve been at Abu Ghraib. I know what they can do.”