Beirut -- On Sergeant Jed Anderson's back is tattooed "I give life and death." As a US Army Arabic linguist in Iraq he did just that -- process intelligence that saved or ended lives. He performed this crucial role in the war effort until becoming the 64th Arabic linguist discharged under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.
President Obama, Secretary of Defense Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Mullen support overturning "don't ask don't tell" -- signaling the possible demise of the controversial sixteen year-old policy. Although it humiliated and ruined the careers of many soldiers, Arabic linguists suffered disproportionately at a time when their skills were indispensable. By adhering to the policy -- especially during wartime -- three Presidential administrations handicapped American military capability and demonstrated the policy not only inhumane but self-defeating.
Anderson's story highlights the daily anguish gay and lesbian soldiers face; jeopardizing their lives for comrades and country while concealing an identity punishable by expulsion from the military or even jail-time.
"The Army invested in me, taught me discipline and self-confidence and made me what I am today," Anderson says fidgeting with a cigarette in a Beirut cafe. He enlisted in the Army on a linguist contract only months after the invasion of Iraq. Although practical considerations prompted his enlistment, faith in America's democratizing mission in Iraq endowed his new job with a higher purpose. "I wanted to make the world a better place," he says.
Anderson scored high on an aptitude test and was given a year and a half of rigorous Arabic and analyst training with two-hundred peers at The Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California.
Deployed to Iraq, Anderson translated and analyzed enemy communication first in Mosul and then Rawa, near Syria. He handled sensitive, classified material. "I gained information that saved American lives," he bluntly states. He eventually became the top Arabic linguist for his brigade and was chosen as the personal street interpreter for a Colonel who wrote a reference extolling Anderson's skill.
Anderson did not enter the Army acknowledging his own sexuality. Ironically, it was the military's emphasis on integrity that gave Anderson the self-confidence to accept who he really was. Those same values became his undoing. He sought to uphold the principles instilled in him, and as a result, became increasingly aware of the lie he lived.
In Iraq he focused on the mission and suppressed his emotions "the way any soldier learns to ignore personal issues like marital problems," he says. Anderson hid his gay identity while on tour for fear of rejection by his peers. Hearing derogatory terms prevalent in macho military culture did not affect him. Occasionally, however, the topic forcibly confronted him. Once, an interrogator requested Jed write "faggot" in Arabic on a placard that would be used to humiliate an Iraqi detainee.
While in Baghdad, at the end of his Iraq tour, everything changed. He read an article in Army's publication The Stars and Stripes about a gay Arabic linguist he knew who was forcibly outed and discharged under Don't Ask Don't Tell. A wave of paranoia overtook him. Anyone could denounce him, destroying his career and reputation. Reassigned to Alaska as a humvee mechanic on Ft. Wainwright, a flood of emotion hit him returning to American soil. He was increasingly consumed with feelings of being deceitful. "Every day I woke up and said to myself 'You have no integrity.' I felt like I was living a giant lie. When someone says 'fag' I know they are talking about me and now I'm not even standing up for myself."
Anderson met and moved in off-base with Paul, his current partner. This arrangement violated military code. The discord between his personal and professional lives grew. Anderson was so anxious he began failing all questions on routine polygraph exams. To make matters worse, a new -- virulently homophobic -- Platoon Sergeant arrived on base who singled Anderson out and scrutinized his performance. He suddenly felt a part of a draconian system that kept him under surveillance.
"Every moment I felt like my skin was about to crawl off, " he laments.
Anderson's stress boiled into a nervous breakdown. Following legal advise, he gave a "coming out" letter to his commander who refused to acknowledge it. "I won't lose a good soldier to a stupid policy," he told Anderson. He came out to his comrades and they supported him but the policy remained hanging over his head. Days later, the same commander -- probably fearing retaliation for inaction -- reversed course and informed Anderson he would move to discharge him. After political wrangling he was granted an honorable discharge for committing "homosexual acts." Any potential employer can request his discharge papers meaning the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy has permanently branded him.
Anderson's experience turned him against broader American policy, especially in Iraq. "I was naïve. I fought for the freedom of others while my own country denied me basic rights. The whole system is unjust," he states. He is unequivocal when asked about re-enlisting should Don't Ask Don't Tell be repealed. "I'm done," he says. "I don't support the Iraq War."
Anderson is currently a graduate student at The American University of Beirut in Lebanon. He enjoys the city and its haven for gays in the Arab World. His new passion is helem -- a locally based organization advancing gay rights awareness in the Arab World. "I want to use my Arabic for good now, become an academic," he adds.
Anderson undoubtedly supports repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell. "I wouldn't want anyone to experience what I did," he says, lighting another cigarette. "I would rather have gone through Iraq ten times than be kicked out once."