John and Ben fell in love, and then Ben left for his second tour in Afghanistan. John talks to Emily Heist Moss about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and the tangible impact on soldiers serving overseas and their loved ones at home.
Growing up in the affluent Massachusetts community where I did, I didn’t meet a lot of military families. My classmates did not enlist after high school graduation, and my college didn’t even have its own ROTC chapter. That distance from American military life and all of its unique stresses and anxieties is not uncommon for my peers. Consequently, my opposition to the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy—which prohibits discrimination against closeted LGBTQ military personnel, but also prohibits openly LGBTQ Americans from serving at all—was grounded in general distaste for discrimination and homophobia. I didn’t know anyone the policy affected, and I didn’t have any concrete faces or stories to illustrate its impact.
About a year ago, I met John*. He told me a story about the tangible effects of DADT on military personnel and the loved ones they leave at home. He’s generously allowed me to share that story with you. He believes, and I agree, that understanding the consequences for soldiers and civilians makes us all better equipped to argue against policies like DADT and the homophobic attitudes that support them. DADT was officially repealed today, but we have a long way to go before the military is a welcoming space for LGBTQ Americans.
When John and Ben met at a house party in a small New England town, they approached their nascent relationship as oppositely as two people can. John was out and proud, with a strong support network and an accepting circle of family and friends. He was in the midst of what he called his, “Rah rah! I’m gay and I wouldn’t be any other way! phase,” and was deeply involved in the gay rights movement. He even spoke at rallies about his experiences as a gay teen and about his ultimate desire for marriage and family. Ben was not out to anyone and had just returned from his first tour of duty in Afghanistan. He had taken a shot to the shoulder and was three months into a long rehabilitation program. Though he was being treated for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, he was itching to redeploy and get back to his brothers.
John and Ben hooked up drunkenly the first night they met, and John wrote Ben off as one of the ‘straight’ guys he’d never hear from again. This wasn’t his first trip down military lane, and he was wary of showing too much interest. In college, he’d slept with a closeted Marine who had become violent and threatening when his fear of exposure got the best of him. But Ben did call again, inviting him to a movie and kicking off their relationship. Though in public they were just good friends, the two spent every night together and were making plans for the future.
Ben’s redeployment was looming from the day they met, and John never tried to dissuade him from his commitment to his brothers. Even as the relationship got more serious, the pair worried about casting doubt on Ben’s “straightness,” as he prepared to deploy again. John never even met Ben’s parents, conservative Eastern European immigrants, or his brother. Jane, the friend who introduced them, was the only one who knew. She didn’t even tell her boyfriend, Alan, who was deploying with the same company as Ben.
Alan and Ben left for Afghanistan in early January, leaving their partners and families to live under the weight of constant fear. For John, the anxiety that so many Americans live with was magnified for by the secrecy he was forced to maintain. “Every emotion that someone who has a family member who deploys feels, I felt. I was terrified. Our situation was so different from Jane and Alan’s. They could have an open relationship. They could talk every day.”
John and Jane shared their fears and nightmares with each other, but John couldn’t talk to anyone else, not his parents or Ben’s family. Having his partner in a warzone made the desire to constantly say “I love you” more important than ever, so John created a fake email account with a female name. He made a Facebook page for his female pet so that he and Ben could chat in real time. Ben had no privacy on his base, so all of their communications had to be censored. For the rare opportunities they had to talk on the phone, Ben signed off with a coded response, “I’ll talk to you at 1:43.” The “1” stood for “I,” the “4” stood for the four letters in “love,” and the “3” was for “you.” John sent care packages with “nips of his favorite vodkas hidden in my socks. Ben said, ‘I’m pretty sure by the end of this deployment I’m going to have all of your socks.’ I didn’t put my name on the packages, but he knew they were coming.“
As John fretted at home, Ben was fending off inquiries from the guys on the base about his lack of girlfriend. He loved them like brothers, but the constant secrecy and fear of discovery created insurmountable divisions between them. Ben knew all the drama of the other guys’ relationships, “Every time a wife pissed a guy off, or someone had a fight with his girlfriend, he heard about it. He was a sounding board for everybody else’s issues. That’s just who he is. He wants to make everyone else in his life feel good.” But the favor of a kind ear wasn’t returned, “They are his brothers 110%,” says John, “but I think he felt a disconnect. They called him a ‘fuckin’ faggot’ because he didn’t have a girlfriend. To hear that word from people he considers his brothers, it broke his heart.”
“When you are unable to tell people who is important in your life, it prevents you from building the necessary bonds with people around you. You’re closing off this incredibly important part of your life. How are you expected to be a whole person, and wholly there, when you have to cut off an arm?” The guys on the base were supposed to rely on each other unconditionally in moments of extreme danger, but John felt like the pressure caused by hiding their relationship jeopardized Ben’s well-being. “It’s stressful to begin with, let’s be honest, but I think it would have been a lot less stressful if we could have been open, if there was less bigotry around him.“
The worst moment of John’s experience as the significant other of a serviceman occurred when Ben’s troop was attacked on a mission. Afterward, John would hear how Ben’s friend was shot and Ben dragged him to safety behind a truck while returning fire. Later, he would hear that they made it back to the base safely, with no casualties. But at the time, he heard nothing. The commanding officer was concerned there’d been a security breach and blocked all communications in and out of the base. The ban lasted 17.5 days, and all John knew was that the mission had gone wrong. “I cried everyday. I didn’t sleep. I thought he was dead. It was 17 and a half days of physical pain. Everything hurt, getting out of bed hurt, I didn’t go to class. This immense fear hung over everything. I looked at that inbox every second of every day. Four AM, staring at the screen, hitting refresh, refresh, refresh.”
Alan had listed Jane as his person of contact and the beneficiary of his insurance; she would be informed if anything happened. For obvious reasons, Ben couldn’t do the same. Ben’s parents didn’t even know John existed. “Who would have told me if something happened?” he asked, “I was no one to anyone. They didn’t even know I was a friend, much less somebody special.” For 17 days he waited for news, and when the message from Ben finally arrived, John promptly vomited from relief.
While Ben was in Afghanistan, John found out he’d been accepted in a doctoral program across the country. The two of them had made plans, but they seemed further and further from ever coming to fruition. “He was going to go get a job in a recruiting office while I was in grad school. We were going to live together. We even talked about children.” But Ben wanted to make a lifelong career out of the military, despite the burden of DADT. He would say to John, “I understand the fear of change, but at the same time, I love you. I don’t know what they expect me to do. I love you and I love my country.” Ultimately, Ben and John agreed to part ways, so they could each commit to their dreams. John relocated for graduate school, and Ben returned safely to New England.
Today, the official repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell goes into effect. Almost two million active service men and women have received training in preparation for the end of the policy. Today, if they trust their peers to put everyone’s safety and comfort ahead of bigotry, gay and lesbian men and women can live proudly as members of both the American military and the LGBTQ community.
Ben is preparing for another deployment, and he still hasn’t come out. Even if the fear of legal action has been lifted, the fear of discrimination, harassment, and exclusion remains strong. Repealing DADT is a good step, a monumental step, but it is only the beginning of making the military a safe, healthy, positive work environment for gays and lesbians who have committed their lives to this country.
*Names have been changed to protect the identify of “Ben,” who is still an active serviceman.
—Photo JD Hancock/Flickr