I am a gay veteran, but my experience with "don't ask, don't tell" is probably different from most you've heard, because I never told. For nearly five years I stayed silent about my sexual orientation while I served as an infantryman in the United States Army, successfully completed my deployments to Kuwait and Iraq and got a Combat Infantryman Badge to boot, then was honorably discharged from the military and went on to graduate from Syracuse University using my Montgomery GI Bill Benefits. I should be the perfect example of DADT's success. But my time in the military was one of the most stressful, unnerving periods of my life. You see, when I served for those five years, I did so in complete silence and isolation.
For a kid like me -- the first in my family to go to college, growing up in a small city in Ohio -- the military was the way to go. My family was solidly working-class, unable to afford to put me through college, and I had the misfortune of going to a high school that rendered an introverted, intelligent kid like me virtually invisible amid the throngs of skilled basketball and football players that took my school to sports glory while its academic reputation lagged further behind.
I wanted to get out of my city, to create a different life for myself, and serving in the military was the only real shot I had. I would have done anything to protect that opportunity. I was pathologically paranoid of opening up to anyone about anything, least of all the gay identity that I was struggling to come to terms with.
For years I cut myself off from my other platoon members, becoming secretive and antisocial. I was told these were my brothers, that I should be able to trust them with my life. That's what warfare demands -- total faith in those fighting alongside you -- but my fear eroded that trust. How could I completely trust a soldier who could ruin my career? So I declined invitations to hang out. I kept my distance. I was so nervous that they would somehow know, that I would say the wrong thing, maybe look at another guy for too long, and that they would figure it out, report me, and have me railroaded out of the military and right back to Ohio. I retreated into myself and, eventually, sunk into a depression.
I only came out to one person, and even then it was a serious risk. But when I got the call that my unit was deploying to Iraq, I started thinking about death in a way few 20-year-olds will ever have to, and decided I just couldn't lie anymore. I needed to trust someone, and Howard was the closest thing to a real friend I allowed myself to have during those years. Our shared nerdiness made us outcasts in the platoon, and we bonded in a way familiar to anyone who has ever had to sit outside of the popular table in the school cafeteria. When he told me that it didn't matter to him, that he was still my friend, I realized how much I had internalized the message of DADT. I had forgotten that I was someone worthwhile.
Strangely enough, it wasn't until he was OK with me being gay that I truly started to be OK with it, too. While patrolling the streets of Al Riyadh, or pulling guard duty on the rooftop while our platoon members slept, or just sitting on top of the tank in our staging area watching the sun set over the hot fields of Iraq, I was able to talk with him openly about what I was feeling and what was going on inside, finally letting someone into this internal fortress. I served in Iraq for just short of a year, and while I was physically in great danger on more than one occasion, I was -- finally -- mentally at peace.
I spent a good portion of the years afterward being ashamed of my military service; as if being gay somehow negated the sacrifices that I made and the risks that I took in order to serve my country. When talking with veterans, gays were like a dirty little secret they didn't want to acknowledge, and when I talked to my gay friends in college, nobody understood the decision to go into military service, partially because my economic background was so different than theirs. I was caught in the middle again. Once more, I didn't belong.
Recently, though, that isolation changed. A few months back, I started writing about my experiences, then speaking out at various events across the country; two weeks ago, I lobbied on Capital Hill in support of "don't ask, don't tell" repeal with fellow gay veterans from all over the U.S. It was then that I realized how alone I wasn't, and how many different versions of this story exist within the ranks of the gay veterans now fighting to serve openly. This fight gives me the camaraderie that I lost in the years I was forbidden from speaking up for fear of being fired and denied the benefits that I had earned, and whenever I write or speak out about my experiences, it feels like I'm taking a piece of myself back, a piece that was robbed of me for so many years when the policy legally prohibited me from doing either.
A great deal of our conversation is focused around the soldiers who got dismissed via "don't ask, don't tell," but my story is one of the mental costs of this policy. For some soldiers, the policy took away college educations, or pensions, or their ability to serve, but for me DADT took away something else: trust in my fellow soldiers, belief in myself and my own value. For all the things the U.S. military gave me, for all the many things I am grateful -- discipline, loyalty, a college education that changed my life -- I never want future soldiers to walk that path of fear and self-doubt.
When I read about the White House finally supporting the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" after so much hard work has been done by groups like Servicemembers United and the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, I feel hope. Hope that the battle is drawing to a close. (And while questions about the timeline for DADT's removal remain, I believe recent events are a significant step forward.) Hope that my fellow gay veterans and the gay soldiers serving now are the last generation that will have to serve in silence.
For every gay veteran's story you do hear, there are hundreds if not thousands of soldiers' stories you won't. Stories of isolation and fear, mental distress, sexual assault, and all of the other poisons bred by the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. But maybe now, the next generation of gay soldiers will have stories different from mine: stories of open and honest service, where they can feel free to be themselves, love in any way they desire, and trust that they have the backing of the people and the leaders that they're sworn to protect. Ask any of the gay veterans in this movement and they'll tell you: That's worth fighting for.
Rob Smith is an Iraq war veteran and freelance writer living in New York. Find him on the web at www.robsmithonline.com.