It was the day after my 22nd birthday when my commanding officer in the United States Marines Corps Reserve told me that I had tested HIV positive. He read my diagnosis from a script. I thought that I would never see another birthday. It was 1992, four years before effective treatment.
I was given a choice. I could remain in uniform, but I had to switch to a non-combat position in a unit far away from me -- and I also had to submit to blood tests every three months, following the military's orders on my health care. Or, I could switch to inactive status, which meant I would no longer be serving, but I could be called back to duty in an emergency until my enlistment expired.
I had only served four years of my eight-year contract, so if I chose inactive status I still had four years on the hook. Considering the distasteful alternative, I chose inactive status. HIV had turned my life upside down; I didn't want to give Uncle Sam even more control over my life as a result. No emergencies came up in the following four years, so I was never called to serve again.
Being a gay man in uniform back then was difficult enough, but being HIV positive made me want to leave. I'm not the only one. According to a report from the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center, about half of those service members diagnosed with HIV eventually leave. The report doesn't shed light on why, but stigma and discrimination are my most likely suspects.
Despite great strides forward by the U.S. military -- abolishing racial discrimination, advancing roles for women and ending "don't ask, don't tell" -- only recently has improving the circumstances of those serving while HIV positive made the radar. In 2012, a year after DADT was repealed, the Navy became the first branch to allow overseas service for those living with the virus.
That policy went into effect a year later. In 2014, the Marines implemented the same policy. Also that year, the Department of Defense was required by the National Defense and Authorization Act to report to Congress about personnel policies pertaining to HIV-positive service members. The report claimed that all was well, but U.S. Representative Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) disagreed.
As of press time, Lee had still not received a reply from the DOD to her inquiry about the report. Some of her concerns include medical privacy rights, the criteria used to determine if an HIV-positive service member is fit for duty, and why people living with the virus are prohibited from enlisting, since those who seroconvert after joining are allowed to continue to serve.
In honor of Veterans Day, click here to read about our cover gal, Heather Arculeo, a former Marine; Michael Subra, a current Coast Guard recruiter; Aaron Laxton, an Army veteran; and other service members, past and present, who are living with HIV. As our cover story seeks to understand the barriers they face, it also spotlights their fight to live and serve with HIV in the U.S. military.