So we just skirt the hallway sides
A phantom and a fly
Follow the lines and wonder why
There's no connection/And week of rolling eyes
And cheap shots from the trite. — The Shins, "Phantom Limbs"
I had to chapter a Soldier out of the Army today. I had no choice. She was a good Soldier, but the laws are clear and the laws tie my hands.
The words that got the ball rolling on her separation from the Army were only four and they made up one of the most ridiculous sworn statements I have ever seen in my life: "I am a lesbian."
My commanding officer and I stood there looking at the piece of paper. “That’s it?” a look between us seemed to say. A straight, diagonal line from one end of the page to the other said that, yes, that was it.
I glanced over at my young Soldier standing there at attention, eyes locked at some point straight ahead. She had told me earlier while we both were outside smoking a cigarette she was going to do it — she was going to come out to the commander. Most of the unit already knew she was gay — no one really cared. She was smart about it though, keeping it hidden away from those who could put forth into motion processes she wasn’t ready for.
She knew the consequences of what she was about to do, but she told me she couldn’t do it anymore. She couldn’t live the lie, she couldn’t not be herself anymore.
“You sure this is what you want to?” I asked her.
“Yes, I’m sure,” she said, a quiver in her voice betraying the wall of strength she was desperately trying to project.
“Don’t lose your cool, don’t lose you’re bearing,” I said to her after we’d talked some more and affirmed a course of action.
“Be a professional to the very end,” I told her.
Glancing back at her as the CO signed the legal documents I was so proud of her, standing there, rigid, “yes, sir” and “no, sir” the only answers coming out of her mouth. Right there, at that moment, she was walking the walk of an Army value of personal courage, and as I looked at her, both pride and frustration at the current Army policy concerning homosexuals washed over me. This was only the beginning; it would take weeks before all the paperwork would be done and she was discharged from the Army. In the meantime, she was expected to go back out there and be a Soldier, albeit one who wasn’t living a lie anymore.
I said she was a good Soldier. That’s not to say there wasn’t a slew of problems – but they were the problems found in many a young Soldier: she partied a little too hard at times, she was late to unit musters without calling ahead, and there were other issues but nothing that would not have resoled themselves with mentoring and maturity. She is, after all, only 20 years old.
And then something strange happened, so strange that everyone around her noticed it. After coming out to the CO, she changed: she tried a little bit harder, she wasn’t late anymore, she did everything we asked her to and she did it with the passion and fire you expect from a Pfc. Her attitude changed; she smiled a bit more often, cut up with the unit more freely. She was finally comfortable in her own skin.
Living a double existence is one of the major problems of the current “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that doesn’t get much attention. I understand that it’s kind of a hard thing to encapsulate, but forcing someone to live a lie puts them in the position of holding back – how would you like it if always seemed like there was a thumb pushing you back down?
It’s time. It’s past the time, actually, to end this ridiculous policy and let those who are gay serve alongside anyone else willing to put their life on the line for this great nation.
An informal straw poll of some Soldiers around me revealed what most of us wearing the uniform already know — very few people care who you’re sleeping with. Almost universally, the answers went something like, “I don’t want to know who anyone is sleeping with gay or straight, I want to know that if it came down to it, could that person put bullets down range and could they pull my ass to safety if I should go down.”
Of course there are those who, for whatever reason, are still adamantly opposed to gays serving in the military just like there were those opposed to integrating the services back when blacks and white served in separate units. I won’t get into their logic because frankly, I don’t understand it.
And like those days of integration, there will be some high-profile problems if the decision to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is ever reached. But that can no longer be a reason for the delay; just because something might be hard and might come with new sets of problems is no reason to forgo the action. One of the things my dad, a career military man himself, told me long ago, that has stuck with me through all the years, was that most of the time, doing the right thing is the most difficult of all the paths ahead of you.
“Hey Sarge, this is all I’ve ever wanted to be, since I was a kid,” my Soldier said to me as we were back outside smoking another cigarette, an uncertain future ahead of her, “you think they’ll let me back in if they ever repeal this stupid law?”
I wanted to tell her it was a slam dunk, that, absolutely, if and when those in Washington who seem to delight in playing puppet master with peoples lives removed their heads from their sphincters, everything would be okay and she would be able to come back into the Army. But I looked her in the eye and held her gaze for a few seconds.
“I don’t know,” I replied.