You don’t know me. I’m in my early 40s, a career Army officer, born and raised in the South. For the last 10 years, I’ve been in a committed relationship. But revealing who I am would mean breaking the law and risking getting fired, despite 18 years of service to our country, three combat deployments, promotions, and a presidential commission to lead troops.
As I write this, it’s just past 11 p.m. on Tuesday night in Afghanistan, a day that started like most other days. Yet today was different. Today, I read that the White House struck a compromise with military leaders, gay advocacy groups and Congress in a deal that could—just might—make “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” a memory by Christmas.
Throughout the day, family and friends called and emailed to ask me how it felt.
I didn’t know what to say because I think that, on some level, I just felt numb. And here in Afghanistan, it was something I couldn't share with anyone, and so I just went back to work.
When I joined the Army as an ROTC cadet, I knew I was probably gay. I say “probably” because I had girlfriends on and off, and—to be honest—had convinced myself that I could cure that gay thing through enough prayer and enough girlfriends. Problem was, the sex never really worked. Never felt right. Never was right. So, I became good at other tricks. I was always “too drunk” or “had to get up early” or—pathetically—“was injured during rugby.”
The deceit, of course, exacted a toll. I was drinking too much, had anger issues, became estranged from the ones I loved. I had decided that celibacy was the way to go when I met a fellow combat arms officer, who was gay. We had similar backgrounds and similar career paths—both at the top of our respective battalions. We were quite alike, except for one small detail: This officer, a West Point graduate, lived an open life. “I’m a damn good infantry officer, a distinguished honor graduate from Ranger school, promoted early to major,” he’d say. “I believe in the Army’s core values. And I don’t want to lie.”
His determination scared me more than a little. I desperately loved my job. It felt like a calling to command my first unit. Here I was, a junior captain, fast-tracking toward major. The soldiers respected me, and it was rewarding to do something I was good at. To do what my fellow officer did—to live in the open—was too risky. What if people saw us together, that big gay officer and me? Might as well wear a boa in front of my troops, I thought. And so I cut him off, and fooled myself into believing that I could do without a partner until I retired from the Army in another 20 years.
Over time, however, I found the courage to tell my closest Army friends—and not one of them expressed any problems. Of course, I was breaking the law by telling them, and they were breaking the law by not informing the chain of command. But coming out, even in this small group, allowed me to live more honestly and, I believe, eventually find the man who would be my partner. At age 33, I developed the courage to love a civilian, with his own career, three degrees under his belt and a family with room for me, despite my half-dozen duffle bags stuffed with emotional baggage.
Since then, I know of at least four men under my command who were gay. Two of them lived quite openly because they believed that living a lie was counter to their ethical charge as soldiers; one was processed out of the Army under the Uniform Code of Military Justice; and the other was transferred. Another soldier was outed by an Evangelical roommate who had baited him into the revelation. He was not chaptered because we were a week from deployment and no one really believed that it was true. After he left the Army, however, he told me that, indeed, he was gay. The fourth soldier I found out about after he died, when his longtime partner wrote to me, not knowing my orientation, to tell me how much this staff sergeant had loved the Army; how we were the only family he’d ever known.
In my own life, my partner has none of the privileges of a spouse. We have weathered three long deployments like any other couple might. But should I die in the line of duty, my partner would get no support from any official channels. He would be notified after my brother, who is listed as my legal next of kin.
My partner and I have happily accepted my various assignments because we’re truly committed to the Army, its soldiers, and their families. But after our 10 years together, my partner has earned the right to be told first about my death. He has earned the right to make my health emergency decisions. And he has earned the right to be recognized for his sacrifices just as any other spouse.
Today he sits alone, at our overseas home, waiting for my return from yet another war zone. He is in a foreign country, earning less than one fifth of his previous salary, alone in the home that we created together. What’s worse—he is now in the closet for the first time in his life, even to his closest work friends. It’s a small, predominately military expat community and chances are that someone he knows is someone who knows me.
I deeply believe that America is fighting the right fight in Afghanistan. I believe in this battle against our enemies. And, I believe that the U.S. Army is the single greatest force for good the world has ever known.
But I want to tell the guys I eat lunch with every day about my partner. After all, these are the guys I risk my life with—the guys who think they know me. I can tell you every detail of how each of them met their wives; how one of them still feels guilty about an affair he never had, but thought about; how one of them cried so hard the day his son was born.
Yet they don’t know much about my life, except the most superficial details. Over the years, I have become good at evading and changing subjects artfully. To slip up—using the wrong pronoun when describing whom I was with during R&R, or mentioning whom I talked to on Skype last night—is no longer something I worry about. I have become so good at this lying game it eats at my soul.
A week ago, two of my friends were killed in a bombing. The days since then have bled into each other. Between the fighting and the routine, it is hard to find the time for contemplation, and it is usually not until the evening that I allow myself to think about these things.
Now, on Tuesday night, sitting on the base, reflecting on what may have happened today, I consider my numbness and I realize it’s a different kind of armor, developed over years of false starts and broken promises by politicians who talk a mean game but then don’t deliver.
The military is a covenant between a soldier and his commander. And I need our commander-in-chief to keep his promise to my partner and me. I will risk my life, and in return, I ask to be treated simply like anyone else in the service—nothing more and nothing less.