Pfc. Barry L. Winchell of the 101st Airborne Infantry was murdered in his bed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky in the pre-dawn hours of July 5th, 1999 while he lay sleeping. His killer, a nineteen year old fellow soldier wielding a Louisville Slugger baseball bat, struck him with such savage ferocity that bits of Winchell's brain and bone, mixed with blood, sprayed against the wall behind his bed like a red halo.
Barry Winchell never regained consciousness. He died of massive head injuries at Vanderbilt Hospital on July 6th, when his grief-stricken mother, Pat Kutteles, kissed her only son goodbye, and watched as a machine tracked the life leaving her son's shattered body; the same body she'd once wrapped in blankets and held in her arms. He was twenty-two years old.
The vision of hell visited upon Pat Kutteles ten years ago was very much on my mind this past Independence Day weekend, and not only because it's the tenth anniversary of the murder of her only child.
Barry Winchell was also one of the earliest martyrs to Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
Four months earlier, Winchell, who identified as straight, had become romantically involved with a transsexual woman named Calpernia Addam, a nightclub performer in nearby Nashville. When his roommate, Justin Fisher, became aware of this, he turned Winchell's life into a waking nightmare of harassment, innuendo, and rumor.
Branding Barry Winchell "the faggot" was a cruelly effective enterprise: under the terms of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Winchell had no choice but to keep his head down and endure the escalating brutality. Mentioning it, or even revealing the increasingly sinister abuse, would have meant his expulsion from the army. So he didn't complain. He didn't tell anyone, not his commanding officers, not his girlfriend, Calpernia Addams.
And especially not his parents, Pat and Wally Kutteles back home in Kansas City.
For his part, Justin Fisher appeared to have found the ultimate solution to the problem posed by "the faggot" Barry Winchell. On July 4, 1999, after a barbecue on the base accompanied by a great deal of alcohol, Fisher spent the afternoon needling and goading nineteen year old Calvin Glover about a fight he'd lost to Barry Winchell earlier in the day.
What sort of a man, Fisher taunted, what sort of a real man would lose a fight to a faggot like Barry Winchell?
Glover, already emotionally disturbed, and growing drunker and drunker as the shadows of the day grew longer, would have been easy to taunt. Goading him to the point of murder would have been like lighting a long fuse on a raft of Independence Day fireworks. When the midnight hour came and went, Fisher put the baseball bat into Glover's hands and aimed him, fatally, into the darkness towards Barry Winchell's sleeping form. In the classic hate crime modus operandi, the bat only struck Winchell's head, face, and upper torso area, as if Glover were trying to not only kill his victim, but to obliterate any trace of what he represented.
I spent the summer of 2002 on assignment for The Advocate on the set of Soldier's Girl, the Ron Nyswaner-directed film of Barry Winchell's last months. Soldier's Girl is told primarily from the point of view of Calpernia Addams. It would go on to win the Peabody Award for Nyswaner, and secure Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for its stars, Troy Garity and Lee Pace. It's a beautiful and powerful film about the terrible cost of love and courage.
But I felt I needed the missing part of the story in my reportage, so in the winter of 2003, I flew to Kansas City to meet, and spend the day with Pat Kutteles and her husband, Wally, who had by then become activists against Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Barry's murder had put Pat and Wally Kutteles in an odd position. While their son didn't identify as gay, he was the victim of an anti-gay hate crime. One that simmered, then reached a boiling point, under the restrictions Don't Ask, Don't Tell kept him from reporting.
"When I found out what happened to Barry, and why -- that it was a hate crime -- I went after the military," Pat told me. "Barry was pointed out and labeled gay. He was harassed daily for four months. What about the safety of the other men and women in the military, the gays and lesbians who are just trying to serve their country? What about their safety? They have parents, they have families, and no one is protecting them. If we don't fight against hate crimes, and for those people who are targeted, I feel as is we're letting Barry down. Because that's what Barry would have fought for. [As a soldier] he would have fought for the rights of everybody. No matter how hard it is, no matter how long it takes, I have to fight for my son's ideals. And that's what we're doing.
The Barry Winchell Courage Award is presented every year by Pat and Wally Kutteles in their son's memory at the annual Servicemen's Legal Defense Network's annual dinner.
Every year, Barry's parents travel to Washington at their own expense to talk to Congress about what happened to their son, reliving the horror of his murder anew, ripping open emotional wounds that are nearly unimaginable to most people in an attempt to convince lawmakers of the terrible flaws of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
If their voices are drowned out, ten years later, by the roar of more general outrage over this discriminatory policy, their voices are among the original ones -- still strong, still constant, and still unforgiving in the truths they tell.
Even though a reported 75% of Americans support the complete repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the Obama administration continues to dither and waffle about the policy, with Colin Powell recently suggesting that it be "reviewed" -- by now familiar Washington-speak for wheel-spinning as long as possible in the hope that critics calling for the immediate fulfillment of one of Obama's most important campaign promises, will be at least temporarily appeased.
Against this cold gray-flannel wall of slick political opportunism comes the seared, cauterized, open heart of Pat Kutteles and the memory of her murdered son.
The real cost of Don't Ask, Don't Tell has always been the human one -- Barry Winchell's life, of course, beaten out of him with a baseball bat over the 4th of July weekend 10 years ago while, all across the country, his fellow Americans -- the ones he'd sworn an oath to defend -- were celebrating freedom and independence, and all the ideals that make the United States a beacon of freedom and democracy, a clarion call to the pursuit of the highest human ideals.
But it has also been the lives and careers of thousands of American soldiers, patriots all, sons and daughters all, who would have been willing and proud to lay those lives down in the service of their fellow Americans.
Today they have names like Dan Choi and Victor Fehrenbach. Tomorrow, sadly, they will have other names.
As for me, I learned everything I needed to know about true courage from a bereaved mother in a cemetery in Kansas City in 2003. At Barry's grave, as the frozen amber sunlight died to black in the midwinter night wind, it was I who wept, and Pat Kutteles held me.
"I feel Barry died for a reason," she'd told me. "I feel that there's a reason things happen. That's also one of the reasons I keep fighting. That gives me comfort, in a way. I don't know that there's anything that gives me total comfort, though. Sometimes when we're home alone, going through our day-to-day stuff, I feel alone. I feel that there's nobody who really cares what kind of a person he was. No one who shares our anger and our grief over what's happening to others out there. And then something will happen that reminds us that there are people out there who care, and who are fighting with us. Then I feel a little bit better. But often I feel like I'm really alone, and really, really missing my child."
Barry L. Winchell