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Remembering a Gay Sailor Murdered in Japan

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It was early November 1992. I had just moved into my new apartment in San Diego. As I sorted through boxes, the television was playing the national evening news. There are moments in your life that you never forget. I had no idea a moment that would shape my life forever was about to occur. As the evening anchor said these words, my blood ran cold: "The U.S. Navy is investigating the murder of Petty Officer Allen R. Schindler in Sasebo, Japan." I immediately ran from the other room to catch the rest of the news report. As I caught a quick glimpse of his photo, my mind no longer registered the rest of the words spoken.

I dove into a box to locate a small piece of laminated paper. I had to confirm the spelling of the name of my friend who was now dead. Allen, who had been stationed in San Diego, had become my friend. Before he shipped out, he had given his eclectic group of compadres his military address. He begged his friends to write him. Between college and work, I had never gotten around to sending him even a postcard.

As the details of his death unfolded, I was sickened, struck by a sense of horror, sadness, and remorse. Allen was savagely murdered by a shipmate, Airman Apprentice Terry M. Helvey, as accomplice Charles Vines watched, in a public bathroom in Sasebo, Japan. Helvey had beaten Schindler to death. He then jumped on his head and torso until they were crushed. From my understanding, parts of his body were liquefied. Not one intact organ remained, forcing his family to identify his body from a tattoo on his arm.

When I learned that Schindler was killed for being gay, I was taken aback with shock. He loved the Navy and kept the fact that he was gay a secret. Only a select, trusted few knew about his sexual orientation. He even went as far as to wear sunglasses in bars so that no one could identify him. His friends often joked with him that his sunglasses drew attention to him rather than helping to conceal his identity.

In the days of "don't ask, don't tell," the Navy was said to have tried to obscure the details of his murder. I later learned that Allen feared for his life and was subjected to homophobic remarks. His command ignored the threats of his fellow shipmates, and as we now know, their assistance could have prevented his murder. However, I was not there and have not spoken to anyone who served with him, but I know for certain that Allen would have never told his command that he was gay and requested a separation without good cause.

As we approach the 20-year anniversary of Allen's death, I reflect on how the military has changed. Servicemembers can now serve openly, and today we celebrate the first anniversary of the repeal of DADT. San Diego Pride saw the nation's first military contingent, with servicemembers from all branches walking in uniform. LGBT military organizations are advocating for military recruiters to attend Pride events around the country.

Recently I was witness to a speech given by Assistant Navy Secretary Juan Garcia, during which he acknowledged gay and lesbian sailors for the first time. He made it clear that advancement was open to anyone who applied himself or herself, and that there was no longer a ceiling to one's opportunity based on sexual orientation. This was the Navy that Allen Schindler was searching for when he enlisted, a Navy in which he was willing to lay down his life in service to this great nation. It was a Navy he did not find.

You may be wondering what happened to Airman Terry M. Helvey. He was sentenced to life in prison at United States Disciplinary Barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kan. He is permitted a clemency hearing once a year. During his trial the defense painted a picture that he was abused as a child and forced by a family member to eat his own feces. The Navy investigator who interrogated Helvey testified that Helvey "said he hated homosexuals. He was disgusted by them." Helvey is quoted as having said, "I don't regret it. I'd do it again. ... He deserved it."

Charles Vins testified against Helvey, served a 78-day sentence, and received a general discharge from the Navy. In my opinion, this was far too lenient a sentence, but no matter how hard I try to understand why Helvey committed such an evil and violent act, I can't, and I have ultimately decided that I really don't care why he did it. My faith teaches me that I should forgive and pray for people like Helvey, but those prayers I cannot yet find in my soul. Instead, I pray that clemency is never granted, because Helvey's actions took a light from us that was not his to destroy. I know Allen never would have said a cross word about anyone.

I want our current men and women in uniform to know about my friend, Radioman Allen R. Schindler (Dec. 13, 1969 to Oct. 27, 1992). I want to tell people that he was an extraordinarily kind and loyal friend who possessed the best qualities we as human beings have to offer each other. When you put that uniform on, you do it for your nation, and you do it for my friend Allen. I know that Allen walked with you on July 21, 2012 in San Diego, and I know he was smiling. Fair winds and following seas, Allen. You are not forgotten.

The murder of Radioman Allen R. Schindler, Jr. was the subject of a 1997 film entitled Any Mother's Son. This article is respectfully written for Dorothy Hajdys, the Schindler family, all LGBT servicemembers, and Tess Banko.