Serving in the Navy as a Gay Man Under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell
This is a hard story to tell and writing it for the world to see is even harder. I’ve been writing this for over two months now. Even as I sit at this laptop, about click the “publish” button, I am second-guessing it.
I’ve only told a handful of close friends and one family member about my unceremonious boot from the U.S. Navy. I’m just so emotionally conflicted about my military service. I am so proud that I was able to serve my country, but I also feel shame about the way my service contract was terminated. There is also a deep sense of abandonment that comes over me when I think about how it all went down. To this day, it all seems like a very bad dream and I literally feel ill as I am writing this.
Why I Joined the U.S. Navy
Without many great options, enlisting in the military seemed to be my best chance to build the life that I wanted for myself and my daughter. My grandfather retired from the Marines and my uncle was actively enlisted in the U.S. Navy when I decided to join. There was definitely a family history with the Navy. I had entertained the notion of enlisting during my senior year of high school, but it just wasn’t for me at that moment in time. I considered enlistment as a last resort in case my other plans didn’t work out.
In the three or so years following high school, I really struggled to find my footing. I briefly attended a local community college before realizing that higher education wasn’t for me. There were also many jobs that came and went, not to mention moving back in and then back out of my parent’s home a few times. My life was shaky and chaotic at best. In the midst of the chaos, I had become a father during my twenty-first trip around the sun. There was so much going on in my life, but at the same time, there wasn’t much going on either. I enjoyed being a father, but it quickly became apparent that I would need to make some drastic changes if I wanted to provide a better life for my daughter.
For me, joining the military wasn’t an act of patriotism or bravery, it was a way out. Joining the Navy seemed like the only way for me to get out of Southern Indiana and to make something of myself.
I officially enlisted in the United States Navy in January of 2000. It was a decision that I had been mulling over about three to four months prior. I had been in contact with a recruiter for several months. I had taken Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) and scored a 90, which isn’t too shabby for someone that barely graduated high school. Once I was signed up, I was given the option to defer entry for up to six months. There was also the option of leaving for boot camp as soon as a week later. My parents were quite shocked when I told them I ship out in 7 days.
Navy Boot Camp
I shipped out for boot camp in early January of 2000. To this point in my life, I had never even traveled out of the Midwest and my exposure to other cultures and races was minimal. Heck, the flight to boot camp was my first time ever traveling by plane. This closeted gay boy from a small farm town in Southern Indiana was about to have his world shook. Majorly.
My Overall Experience in Navy Bootcamp
Going through Navy basic training was a dynamic and humbling experience for me. As cliche as it is to say, I really did learn a lot about myself. I was lucky enough to be selected to a 900 division which means I got to be part of the performance at two graduation ceremonies (including my own). My co-ed division (917) presented state flags and I had the honor of carrying the flag for the great state of New Mexico.
The six-week training went by quickly. Overall, I really enjoyed the physical and mental challenges of the training. The hardest thing was being away from my daughter who was only six months old when I enlisted. It was hard not to think about every little moment that I was missing out on. A steady stream of letters from home kept me comforted and reassured that my baby girl was doing well and that she hadn’t forgotten who I am.
By the end of boot camp, I had grown into a completely new man. There was a mental and emotional maturation that occurred. A great sense of pride for being in the military and serving my country had also swelled up inside of me. I can remember my graduation like it was yesterday. As I marched in that hangar handling that beautiful yellow and red state flag of New Mexico, I felt so proud. That feeling of pride is right up there with how I felt the day I watched my daughter being born. It is, without doubt, a top-five moment for me.
The Topic of Homosexuality in Navy Bootcamp
For the most part, my sexuality didn’t even cross my mind during basic training. My sole focus was getting through each day the best I could. I only remember a few occasions when homosexuality was discussed by either recruits or instructors. There was a very brief education given about the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy during one of the many classroom days. The other discussion was within our division. There were two very close friends in our division that everyone had pegged as a couple. They had joined together through the Navy Buddy Enlistment Program (Yes, that is a real thing) which ensured they would not be separated throughout basic training. If they were indeed a couple, it really didn’t seem to bother anyone. It was just juicy gossip to help pass the time.
After graduating boot camp, most recruits are shipped off to various parts of the country for ‘A-school’. This is the specific training for the job that each recruit has chosen. I, however, enlisted with an undesignated rate. This basically means that I didn’t have a job designation. I did this when I enlisted because I had prior legal issues and therefore was unable to get security clearance for the jobs that I wanted. The new plan was to enlist without a designation and work towards getting approved for my desired rate after a few years. That would allow me to get the security clearance to do the job that I really wanted to do.
Since I had no A-school, I was shuttled to an adjacent training base for a two-week Seaman Apprenticeship Training. At this point, I already had orders to serve on the USS Detroit. After completing the apprenticeship, I hopped on a flight to Philadelphia to report to my first duty station.
You may be wondering why a Navy ship would be docked in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I was initially confused as well. It turns out that this 30-year-old ship was just finishing up a year-long rehab in the Philadelphia shipyards. Upon my arrival, I was welcomed to what seemed much more like a construction site than a military installation. Three weeks later, we shoved off and sailed to our home port of Leonardo, New Jersey. This was another moment of immense pride for me because I felt like my active-duty life had officially begun. As we slowly crept down the Delaware River and into the dark blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean, I couldn’t help but be excited about this new beginning.
Serving on the USS Detroit (AOE-4)
Serving aboard the USS Detroit was a unique Navy experience. This was commonly conveyed by shipmates that had been stationed on other bases and ships. This particular ship had a bad reputation throughout the east coast fleet and with the residents of Sandy Hook, NJ. The “Dirty D” was known by sailors as an undesirable duty station due to its age, lack of amenities, and home port location.
The mission of the USS Detroit was to provide fuel, ammo, and supplies to other ships in the fleet. This was done by a process called underway replenishment, also known as UNREP. We would replenish other ships (sometimes two at a time) while moving through the water at a speed of about 14 knots (16 mph). Underway replenishments were intense. Depending on the size of the ship, an UNREP could last for up to 5 hours. We were a hard-working crew that didn’t get much recreational time while underway.
Working My Way Up the Ladder
My first few months on the ship were challenging to say the least. I was basically just another deckhand since I didn’t have a designation. The days were spent scrubbing mooring lines, chipping paint, painting, sweeping the deck, and cleaning. Lots of cleaning. I’m a rather tall guy, so I was usually assigned various ‘tall people jobs’ such as dusting the overhead pipes and changing light bulbs. I don’t consider myself entitled, but this felt below me. Something had to change!
Those eye-opening first months gave me the motivation that I needed in order to improve my situation. It became my mission to work myself up the ladder. I began making friends with shipmates in my direct chain of command and made sure that the right people noticed my work. Additionally, started studying for the designation that I wanted. I knew it would be a long process, so I wanted to start early. Within a couple of months, I was able to earn the position of my division’s Yeoman. Things got much easier once I had moved into this admin job. I had even garnered an endearing nickname from my shipmates… “Office Bitch.” I was good with it.
As time went on, I continued to work hard and learn as much as I could. I also zeroed in on my desired job designation. A fellow shipmate was studying to become a builder (BU). This rate wasn’t previously on my radar, but once I learned more about it, I knew it was for me. I got my coursework and started studying. These were the first steps of earning an A-school and getting off “Dirty D”.
A Navy Ship with Spacious Closets
There were obviously many LGBTQ peeps serving with me on the Detroit. Some of us were doing our best to hide it and others…not so much. The common denominator was that none of us were able to be openly queer even if we wanted to. The military at that time did not allow us to serve while being openly non-hetero. It wasn’t something that I gave much thought to. I wasn’t ready to live my truth openly anyway.
I was very aware of several of my male and female shipmates that didn’t hide things as well as I thought I did. They were on everyone else’s radar as well. There was plenty of speculation and chatter going around the ship about those that were suspected to be gay. Considering all the speculation and assumption, even the most obviously gay person on the ship was not open about their sexuality. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was being observed. We were being good little gays and keeping ourselves tucked away in the Navy closet.
A Well-Kept Beard
I was still figuring things out when it came to my sexuality. If you asked me back then, I would’ve told you I was bi. Heck, I may have even tried to convince you that I was straight and just experimenting. Whatever it was, I made a conscious effort to openly display my heterosexual activities and keep everything else on the DL.
I did plenty of flirting with my female shipmates, yet I never pursued any type of romantic relationship with them. I dated a young lady that I met in Manhattan for a brief period, and I genuinely liked her, but what I liked most was the status of dating a female. Being able to tell my shipmates that I had a girlfriend gave me a sense of security against being outed. That relationship would eventually fade as it had served its purpose as my beard for long enough.
As I look back at my behavior in that first year on the ship, I feel sad. It was driven by immense fear. I was protecting my truth from being out at all costs. That included allowing myself to accept it. It’s so difficult for me to reminisce about this. I am sitting here in disbelief that I lived in such fear about people knowing who really am.
About a Boy
For over a year, I had ignored urges, suppressed feelings, and kept my true sexuality hidden from everyone. I felt like I had done a pretty good job of it because no one was questioning my sexual preference, nor was I aware of any rumors going around about it. Both were things I experienced throughout high school. This time around, I seemed to have it figured out. I had become very good at living a closeted life, or at least I thought. That confidence would prove to be my downfall.
By the summer of 2000, I had served for a year and a half. I remember feeling really settled in. I transferred to a new division and developed a small group of close friends. The area I was living in was also starting to grow on me. I loved exploring the Jersey coast and taking trains into Manhattan whenever I had a free weekend. It seemed that I had hit my stride.
One day while I was performing maintenance to a diesel winch, I notice my old division gathering on a lower deck. I saw a few new faces being introduced to the rest of the division. From a deck up, I could tell that one of the new deck seamen was likely to fall under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. For the purpose of this blog, we will call him “Jay”. He wasn’t my type, nor did I find him attractive, but I was curious to get to know him for some reason.
Over the next few weeks, I would develop somewhat of a friendly acquaintanceship with Jay. I made a point to keep plenty of distance as I did not want my shipmates to associate us as friends. The reason for this was that his natural flamboyance already had people speculating about his sexuality. It didn’t seem to bother him, but the thought of that happening to me was utterly terrifying! I absolutely could not let that happen. Eventually, my curiosity about Jay would get the best of me. I wanted to know more about him, and I think he could sense it too.
Keeping it on the Downlow
One fateful July evening in 2001, I decided to make my approach. After having a few drinks at the bar on base, I met Jay at the recreation center where I knew he would be. I revealed to him that I believed he and I had something in common. Jay knew exactly what I was hinting at. He later told me that he’d been expecting me to approach him. I guess my cover wasn’t as good as I thought it was.
During my initial conversation with Jay, I made my intentions very clear. I told him in no uncertain terms that I was interested in an FWB situation, but romance and a long-term relationship were off the table. I gave him every disclaimer that I could about the “situationship” that I was open to having. Another rule that felt the need to set was that our friendship would be on the downlow. This is yet another thing that mortifies me when I look back at my behavior. I was willing to totally disregard this person’s feelings so that I could protect my precious secret at all costs. To say that I am ashamed would be an understatement.
The First Signs of Trouble
Jay and I quickly settled into a downlow, friends with benefits type of thing. While on the Detroit or in the presence of our shipmates, we would act as if we were mere acquaintances. Our friendship was relegated to sneaking off to areas of the ship where no one would see us chatting, and occasionally meeting up off base. Jay played along with this for the most part, but I could tell that he wanted more. He would occasionally demonstrate this by purposely breaching our agreement regarding the visibility of our friendship. He would randomly pop into my birthing after work hours and ask my shipmates if I was present. Another one of his tactics was to join me as I walked my cool-down laps after my workout.
This behavior made me extremely nervous. I was so worried about others jumping to conclusions at the mere sight of Jay and me being friendly or spending time together. Our friendship and flirtation continued into September of 2001. I previously referred to us as “friends with benefits” but physical interaction had only happened twice. No longer was I curious about him sexually speaking, therefore I began to see Jay in a more platonic way. The issue was that Jay was still very much interested in keeping those benefits intact. I would later come to realize that his feelings were even deeper than I suspected. Jay was falling in love with me.
And then…September 11th
An eventful summer was winding down. I had taken full advantage of my second summer in New Jersey. There were many nights out with friends, and trips to Manhattan for sightseeing and partying. I even had a short fling with an aspiring model that lived right outside of Central Park. Beyond my budding social life, Navy life was looking up as well. In late August, I received confirmation that I had been approved for the A-school that I applied for. Things were going very very well until one historic day in mid-September.
The USS Detroit was already preparing to depart New Jersey on September 19th for a 6-month deployment to the Middle East. The 9/11 terrorist attacks moved that timeline up a few days. Our standard rotational deployment was now a wartime mission. Shit had officially hit the fan and all those ‘feel good’ summer vibes were quickly whisked away.
Underway and Overwhelmed
Once the ship got underway, we sailed East to meet up with the rest of the fleet that was deployed from Norfolk, VA. The atmosphere on the ship was intense. There was an energy of fear mixed with excitement. Nevertheless, we all had a job to do, and we were focused on the mission at hand.
Mitigating the Damage
Within the first few days after the 9/11 attacks, I came to understand that the ship’s atmosphere wasn’t the only thing that had intensified. Jay’s feelings for me seemed to level up almost overnight. I continued to try to protect my secret by keeping a distance between us. I would do my best to meet with Jay for late-night chats in various fan rooms and lower ammo holds where I knew we wouldn’t be seen.
It was my hope that we could continue our secret friendship as it was, but Jay had other ideas. He continued to directly challenge all the guidelines that I had set for our relationship. Jay made it a point to come to my birthing to ask for me at times when he knew there would be a large group of my shipmates congregated in the TV lounge area. I was present a few times when he did this and saw the suspicious looks from everyone almost immediately.
In addition to his awkward visits to my sleeping quarters, Jay began writing letters and emailing me to profess his love. This was yet another behavior that I did my best to keep in check. I was terrified that someone would find the emails or letters. Things were getting out of hand. There was so much going on and now my precious secret was being threatened. Once I started hearing the whispers of suspicion about my sexuality, I was mortified. I just knew it was the beginning of the end.
Staying Focused on the Mission
By the first week of October, the fleet reached the Persian Gulf. My ship stopped at ports in Spain and Crete in order to take on fuel and supplies for the entire fleet. We were the only ship in the fleet that was allowed to port. The crew aboard the USS Detroit was working their butts off. We were stressed to the max, but we remained banded together for the mission.
Days consisted of what seemed like a never-ending cycle of the same activities and experiences. My little crew of five mechanics and four electricians were putting in 10 to 12-hour workdays. Additionally, the other ships in our fleet were pulling alongside and connecting for underway replenishment almost daily. These unreps would take hours to complete and have our crew working even further into the evening. I was also on a watch rotation, so there were nights that I would stand watch in various areas of the ship during normal sleeping hours. Add in a lost hour here and there due to crossing time zones and it’s easy to understand that we were lucky to average 4-5 hours of sleep daily.
A Public Outing
My down-low relationship with Jay was becoming unmanageable and increasingly risky. I did my best to walk a very fine line with him. I enjoyed spending time with him but was concerned about his ability to keep his emotions in check. It was clear to me that Jay was developing some very intense feelings for me. I knew that it was a delicate situation that could quickly spin out of control.
A few months into our war-time deployment, Jay had completely disregarded our agreement to keep our friendship hidden. He was emailing me and delivering handwritten love letters almost daily. These emails and letters were always graphic and made it clear that he was in love with me. I was also made aware that he was professing his love for me publicly. The whispers were becoming louder and louder. The more I attempted to shut Jay down, the more he seemed to do the exact opposite.
A Sunny Afternoon in the Persian Gulf
I had just returned to the winch shop on the weather deck after lunch when I overheard my crewmates gossiping about something. As I heard this juicy gossip, my heart immediately sunk. It almost stopped. I was literally listening to my friends talking about my own public outing!
While I was on the mess deck enjoying my lunch, Jay had (not so subtly) entered my birthing and left a love letter and bag of skittles on my rack. Unfortunately, a few of my shipmates took it upon themselves to intercept this little candy-love-o-gram. As my luck would have it, this would be the juiciest and most sexually explicit letter penned by Jay to date. Unlike the envelope that contained the letter, my fate was sealed. To say that this news spread across the ship like wildfire would be a massive understatement. Within 24 hours, the entire ship would be made aware that I was keeping a little secret.
As soon as my consciousness came back to my body after hearing my crewmates talking about the letter, I ran to my birthing. I knew I was going to find a letter laying on my rack, but I needed to know exactly what that letter said. As I approached my rack, I saw the letter. Whoever decided to remove it from the unsealed envelope didn’t even bother to put it back. I found the letter unfolded, laying on top of my rack for everyone to come by and read. I snatched it and ran into a bathroom stall to read it. As I read it, my heart dropped even further into the pit in my stomach.
Pen, Paper, Proclamation!
This wasn’t just a love letter. This was a full-blown manifesto of Jay’s love and desire for me. There was also a detailed description and rundown of every intimate encounter that we had. I am convinced that this letter wasn’t crafted for my eyes only. Jay had just removed the pin from the grenade and threw it into the crowd.
Within just a few minutes, I experienced a spectrum of intense emotions. The one I landed on after reading Jay’s handy work was anger. I shoved the letter into my pocket and went hunting for Jay. I had a pretty good idea of where he would be, so I angrily marched to that area of the ship. Jay was where I thought he would be, and he was alone. I charged up to him, grabbed him, and pushed him up against the bulkhead.
In no uncertain terms, I let Jay know that he had fucked up. I don’t remember exactly how the conversation went, but I made it clear that he needed to stop professing his love for me. There may have been some threats of bodily harm thrown in there too. I was in full panic mode, so I was willing to do whatever I thought would make him stop. I just wanted him to stop.
The Downward Spiral
Once Jay and I’s special little friendship was made public, things spun even further out of my control. The story had spread to every corner of the USS Detroit. Everyone knew. Over the following week, I was subjected to constant questions, heckling, bullying, and worse. The worst thing that happened was that some of my very best friends didn’t want anything to do with me. I was abandoned those that I thought were “ride or die to the end”. I felt so lost and scared.
Each day, the situation seemed to grow worse. It became clear to me this was not something that was going to go away. Everyone knew my secret, and everyone had a very strong opinion about it. On top of it all, Jay was still adding gasoline to the fire. Not only did he not stop, but he also doubled down and even painted himself as the victim. I don’t disagree that I treated Jay poorly. It’s true, I treated him like shit. I never stopped to consider his feelings. The only thing I cared about was preserving my secret. As true as it was, it was just another truth that I wasn’t ready to accept.
Hitting Rock Bottom
Jay was controlling the narrative, many of my friends stopped talking to me, and I was constantly questioned about my sexuality and my masculinity. It was too much for me. Depression wasn’t something I had dealt with before, but I quickly found myself in a very dark place. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew that I had to make it all stop. The more things spun out of my control, the more I tried taking it back.
One night, I found myself alone, looking off the side of the ship as it glided through the waters of the Persian Gulf. It was pitch black outside. No one was around. Just me, in a state of sadness and confusion. The one thing that remained a constant through this whole ordeal was my desire for it to stop. My need to control what was happening. At that moment, it crossed my mind that there was an option that would allow me to do just that. I could jump into the water, and no one would know. Everything would stop and I would finally have peace. Never have I had a thought like that before and never have I had one since that moment.
Each day that passed felt like an eternity. I was a prisoner on a ship with what felt like 500 enemies in the middle of wartime waters. There was nowhere to hide from it. The situation constantly confronted me in one way or another, regardless of where I was on the ship or what time of day it was. I hit my breaking point, so I decided to act.
I’d Like to File a Report
I was in the middle of a workout in the ship’s gym one evening when one of Jay’s friends showed up to air his grievances with me. He launched into his public rant as I was in the middle of a set of bench press reps. As I previously mentioned, I was constantly confronted and chastised by shipmates. It didn’t matter where I was on the ship or what time of the day it happened to be. This encounter was no different. If you have ever performed a bench press, you can understand the epic level of vulnerability that I felt. This young man proceeded to publicly berate and humiliate me as I lay flat on my back while holding 175lbs above my face. It was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. I felt so unbelievably embarrassed. This would quickly turn to anger.
I immediately ended my workout and marched to the Master at Arm’s office to put Jay on report for harassment. This is where I fucked up. I was there to report legitimate harassment, but the Chief Master at Arms (MAC) seemed to be more concerned about whether Jay and I were romantically involved. Once I officially filed the report with him, he had full justification for investigating to get the answers he wanted. Things were about to get even more stressful for me.
The Only Way Out
Although I vehemently denied that Jay and I were anything but friends, the MAC didn’t buy it. He was out to prove otherwise and that’s exactly what he did. One of the first things he did was to interview Jay and get his side of the story. Let’s just say that Jay gave him the information he wanted and much much more. His side of the story was mostly true, but also greatly embellished. It didn’t matter if Jay was guilty of harassing me or not. The ship’s cop was only focused on citing us for violating Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
Within 24 hours of filing the initial report, I was summoned back to the MAC’s office. The interview started off friendly but quickly turned into a full-on interrogation. The focus was to expose our relationship. Jay had already disclosed everything. Now, the MAC needed me to come clean. I was repeatedly asked if I was gay and if I had a romantic relationship with Jay. I initially denied everything. It was not lost on me that the truth could get me in trouble. I also wasn’t ready to admit the truth to myself.
The interrogation lasted for what seemed like forever. MAC kept pressing me for the truth about my sexuality and repeatedly accused me of lying. At one point, I stood up and told him that I was ending the interview but was immediately told to “sit the fuck down”. Eventually, I broke and admitted everything. I was tired of lying. The whole situation was killing me. It was time for me to wave the white flag and make it all stop.
A Quick Separation
Once I had admitted to being romantically involved with another shipmate, my Navy career was all but over. The A-school that I had earned was rescinded and I was set to be discharged with an R4 designation. To add insult to injury, I was knocked down two pay grades as punishment for filing a false report of harassment.
Within 48 hours of admitting to our gay romance, Jay and I were standing before the captain of the ship for our punishment. This little ceremony is called “Captain’s Mast“. We were joined by our chain of command and several other enlisted shipmates that were there as witnesses. I saw it as one of the final stops on my Naval tour of shame. It was 45 minutes of the Captain and my chain of command telling me how disappointed they were.
I remember one of the Chiefs in my division calling me “an average sailor”. One of the Warrant Officers in my chain of command felt it was necessary to tell everyone that he was surprised to find out that I was gay because I didn’t act gay. He cited interactions he’d witnessed between me and other masculine male shipmates as the reason he was so shocked that I could be anything other than heterosexual.
I was unphased. I felt so numb. After all the humiliation that I had already endured, none of this bothered me. I was ready to go and that was the fate that the captain passed down. She informed Jay and me that we would be leaving the ship immediately. We were deemed to be a liability because she was afraid that someone would attempt to harm us. Even though part of me wanted it all to end, I still plead my case to the captain to let me stay on the ship until the deployment was over. I didn’t want to leave my crew in the middle of a war. My request was politely rejected.
One Final Walk of Shame
After Captain’s Mast, Jay and I were given about 30 minutes to pack up and head to the helo deck. There was a helicopter waiting for us. Just when I thought I’d reached the pinnacle of humiliation, another cruel exercise was added. Still suited up in our dress whites, we embarked on an unceremonious final walk of shame to the aft of the ship. There, we were greeted by 20 to 30 of our shipmates that were serving as the flight deck crew. My scorned lover and I were then taken by helicopter to the USS Theodore Roosevelt. The “TR” was an aircraft carrier that was traveling in our fleet. Our time serving on the USS Detroit (AOE-4) had officially come to an end.
Back to New Jersey
We spent one night on the Roosevelt. The next day, we and several other sailors were put on a freight plane and flown to Bahrain. We spent the night on the Navy base and were flown back to New Jersey. Those four days of travel were hell for me. The process of leaving my crew and being separated from the Navy had me feeling like a total failure. I truly thought that my future was figured out. The Navy was a huge part of that future. I had made so many goals and plans for my Navy career and now it was over. One additional mind fuck to all of this is that I was forced to travel back to New Jersey with the person that I blamed for all of it.
We arrived back in New Jersey and were bussed to Naval Weapon Station Earle. This is where I would be mortified yet again. The person on duty that night who would be checking me in was my Uncle Don. Yep. After eight weeks of hell and 5 days of emotionally charged travel, I was now faced with explaining my shameful ousting from the Navy to my uncle. I have always felt close to Don. He is only a few years older than me, and I view him more as a brother. Sadly, I was still unwilling to trust him with my truth. This made for an awkward check-in.
Even though I had expected him to ask why I was being separated from the Navy, I was not prepared with a good answer. As I searched for a suitable answer, Don offered one. “Did you get popped on a piss test?” he asked. This was his way of asking if I had a random urine test show positive for smoking marijuana. I quickly and happily answered “yes”. That’s right…I would rather admit to using illegal substances than admit that I was gay.
Disgraced and Discharged
I was officially discharged in mid-February of 2002 with an R4 designation code. My service was considered “other than honorable” by the Navy citing “homosexual conduct” as the reason for the discharge. Not only did this mean that I was not eligible for any veteran’s benefits, but I was also unable to re-enlist with any branch of the military. It was a break-up like no other. The Navy made it crystal clear that I was no longer welcomed. Not now. Not ever!
The Navy wouldn’t even help me finance travel back to my home state of Indiana. I was lucky to even get someone from command to give me a ride to the Greyhound station in Newark. They were sure to remind me that it was a favor that the Navy was not required to do. No opportunity to shame me was wasted by the Navy and my command.
Back to Indiana
That was the official end of my other than honorable military service to my country. A lonely 24-hour bus ride from New Jersey to Indiana would finalize this shameful fall from grace. As horrible as 24 hours on a Greyhound was, it gave me some time to decompress. The previous 5 months were severely traumatic for me. I finally had a moment to relax.
This was also my opportunity to decide what I was going to tell my friends and family back home about my sudden discharge from the Navy. I felt bad about lying to my Uncle Don, so I ultimately decided to tell my family that I didn’t want to talk about it the reason I was discharged. Of course, that answer raised even more suspicion, but at least I wasn’t lying to anyone. This blog will serve as the first time that many of them have learned the truth about it.
Time Heals. Mostly
My experience of serving in the Navy during Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was traumatic. The level of shame and abandonment that I was subjected to was extraordinary. After returning to my home state, I attempted to put the pieces of my life back together. The first year was rough. I think I did a good job of working hard and assimilating back into civilian life, but I was still so numb. Over the next few years, I would continue to fumble my way through life trying to find my place. The shock of what happened stayed with me for a very long time. I can’t count the number of times that I played out the ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda’ conversation in my head.
I am happy to report that time has mostly healed the wounds caused by this situation. The scars remain and I occasionally allow myself to daydream about what could have been. The repeal of DADT in 2011 was another important piece to my healing. To me, it was confirmation that DADT was misguided and unfair. It made me so happy to know that young men and women are now able to serve their country while being themselves.
It’s Time to Upgrade
Although I do have the ability to petition Veteran’s Affairs to have my discharge upgraded, I have not yet done so. I’m not sure why I haven’t, but I think now is the time. I’m tired of feeling uncomfortable when thanked for my service or being recognized as a veteran during public events. I believe that getting my R4 code upgraded will be the last step in shedding the shame of how my Navy career was terminated. I will keep everyone updated on how it goes.
Thank you for reading
If you read through to the end, I want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart. This was way harder to write than I thought it would be. Although it’s a difficult story to tell, writing it has been therapeutic for me and I hope that it connects with others that have their own version of this story. The pain of being told that you can’t be your true authentic self goes so deep. This experience and many others throughout my life were constant reminders that I wasn’t welcomed as a gay man. So I had to hide who I was.
Thank you for your time and your support. I would be honored and grateful for any comments and to hear your story as well. We still have work to do in order for EVERYONE to fully claim and enjoy their space in this world. I am so hopeful & optimistic that we can and will do it if we all work together and support each other.
Peace always, Stopher