Why “don’t ask, don’t tell” matters

In a new military memoir, a gay veteran explains how damaging it was to hide his real self while serving

Topics: Books, The Listener, Audio Books, Bronson Lemer,

Why "don't ask, don't tell" matters

Bronson Lemer’s “The Last Deployment: How a Gay, Hammer-Swinging Twentysomething Survived a Year in Iraq,” is a dispatch from the years of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” Bill Clinton’s stopgap measure, which was meant to allow gays, lesbians and bisexuals to serve in the military, but not openly.

The audiobook is ably narrated by Kevin Pierce, whose delivery is clear and true, and whose voice, like Lemer’s, steadily avoids special pleading and melodrama.

“The Last Deployment” begins at the end of the story, after Lemer’s unexpected year-long deployment to Iraq has disrupted his plans to leave the North Dakota National Guard, which he had joined so he could pay for college. Now he is meeting “the only man I’ve ever loved” in a restaurant outside Boston, hoping to rekindle what the war took from them.

But too much has changed, or, rather, Lemer has changed, and his ex-lover hasn’t. In the intervening years, Lemer has lived “the hot summer of 2003, the begging children who swarmed my platoon’s trucks in Baghdad, the scorpions the other soldiers and I caught and released on the Kuwaiti sand, the silly mustaches …”

There is a bowling alley beneath the restaurant, and in the collision of the pins, Lemer hears an echo of the opposing forces inside himself. “During my early twenties,” he says, “I defined myself by two things — my sexuality and my service to my country. I was proud of one and ashamed of the other, and it took me a long time to fix because the fear I had about admitting my sexuality to myself stemmed from my association with the military.”

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The rest of “The Last Deployment” is Lemer’s attempt at a reckoning with that past. Lemer’s unit deploys in the wake of Firdos Square and the toppling of the 20-foot statue of Saddam Hussein. Their work — Lemer is a carpenter — mostly involves repair missions at schools, hospitals, soccer stadiums and fire stations.

Those looking for firefights or illicit love affairs might look elsewhere. Lemer’s unit never came under fire, and Lemer’s sexual energy is focused squarely upon the one he left behind, at home. He longs to tell his fellow soldiers that he is gay, and it is this desire to be known, coupled with his inability, thanks to “don’t ask, don’t tell,” to allow himself to be known, that seems to separate him from the others. The trouble isn’t sex, it’s silence.

After his return home, Lemer gradually severed ties with the men he knew from his unit. At a gay bar in Moorhead, Minn., he met a woman he had briefly met before, in Iraq, and though she plied him afterward with incitements to friendship — invitations to dinner, invitations to an evening of dancing — he refused to return her phone calls and avoided her voice-mail messages.

What he felt building inside him was a growing confidence, which he attributes to the year of wandering in the desert with a rifle, “my third arm,” slung over his back or shoulder. “I was no longer scared about being a gay man in a world that didn’t accept me,” he says. “I’d spent seven years as part of an organization that didn’t acknowledge or understand my lifestyle, and I survived just fine.”

The listener is left to wonder: How much less a burden might the service have been, if “don’t ask, don’t tell,” had been repealed early enough to allow Lemer to live openly throughout his years in Iraq. And what was the psychic toll on so many who, like him, were expected to keep their secret in the midst of war?

The greatest pleasure of “The Last Deployment” is watching Lemer lift and cast off that burden, aided by the powers of time and reflection.

“I entered the Iraqi desert with a mission,” Lemer says, “to prove to myself — and to others — that I didn’t have to choose one or the other; I could be both — a soldier and a gay man.”

*   *   *

New to Audible? Listen to “The Last Deployment” for free, or check out a sample.

Kyle Minor is the author of "In the Devil’s Territory," a collection of stories and novellas, and the winner of the 2012 Iowa Review Prize for Short Fiction. His second collection of stories, "Praying Drunk," will be published in February 2014.

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