I heard a friend say recently, "What changes with the repeal of DADT? Almost nothing." I looked at her for a few moments and responded, "You're right -- partially." Gays and lesbians won't enter into the military in droves, there isn't any sort of system that recognizes gay and lesbian partners, and many currently serving won't come out. So what is the big deal? Although the change isn't an all-encompassing panacea for gays and lesbians serving in the military, the cruelest part of this DADT policy has come to an end: I don't have to trade my values for my service.
I just finished serving a three-year assignment at West Point, assigned to the Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic, and I reveled in that assignment. Like many officers who have chosen the Army as their career, I realized that the values of the Army and the character of its soldiers are the defining aspect of greatness. I knew that what we were promoting with regard to honor and respect would make them better officers. However, at some point in those three years, I started to look inward. Could I practice what I was preaching? Was every act from the moment I realized I was gay counter to all I had learned since I entered the Academy in 1996? I did my best to balance what I thought was most important -- the value I placed on selfless service -- with some sacrifice of my integrity in pretending I was someone I was not. I compartmentalized aspects of my life to continue to serve in the Army, keeping friends and colleagues at bay with imaginary stories or half-truths. This was not the same level of integrity that we taught the cadets each day. We taught that small, daily actions toward moral courage, honesty and respect would ultimately make cadets of stronger stock and character. I began to wonder if the small steps toward deception, dishonesty and lack of acknowledgement of my partner would have the opposite effect.
Deployed as a Company Commander, my significant other at the time was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I had to try to emotionally support her without being able to share that grief with anyone. I was at a loss. I knew this was something I should share with my 1SG and maybe even my Battalion Commander. But it just didn't seem possible. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I was very capable of separating my personal and professional life. Once I took off my gear and picked up the phone, I switched that part of myself back on. This isn't a healthy way to operate, but it was my only avenue. I could not confide in my 1SG, the chaplains or any doctors if I cared about the situation that I would put them in by "knowing." I never wanted my peers and colleagues to have to share this burden of deciding between knowing and breaking a regulation. The silence was overwhelming. Did my command suffer because of this silence? Would my soldiers have been better off if I had shared this stress and grief? I can only guess at these things. As a gay or lesbian soldier, you stand alone -- in arguments, in break-ups and even in life-threatening situations.
I was fortunate enough to find someone who wanted to share her life with me, but I underestimated the challenges that we would face. Bringing someone who was totally "out" into the closeted military life spawned more than a few heated arguments. It felt disrespectful as well as dishonest to never acknowledge wholly this one person who made such a difference in who I was as an officer and as a person. And when the milestones of engagement or having babies arise, you can share this joy with a very small number of people. Unit functions, which were designed to bring soldiers, families and friends closer together, had a way of creating more anxiety, tension and dishonesty.
However, Sept. 20 changes things. It doesn't change anything for us financially; even when we are married, my partner will not be legally acknowledged as my spouse, and we will not be privy to the benefits that heterosexual spouses are granted. But it marks the beginning of a new journey for me and my partner, and for many other military members. One of the brightest aspects of the repeal is the willing unmasking of gay and lesbian mentors and role models and a whole support network free of fear and cultural shame. Other service members will realize that they have known and served alongside us already, and we are closer in kind to them than any stereotype they have seen on television or imagined in their mind. Personally, I will be able to serve as that mentor and example that was previously so difficult to find, with all my Army values intact. Being out and honest about my partner and my life will allow me to look inwardly and know that I can fulfill what I have taught to cadets and soldiers. Now, I have finished with the compromising of self and the half-truths. I will be building that stronger stock and character again in myself.