Coming from a military family, I'm sure it was not much of a surprise when I told my parents that I planned to join the military. After all, both my grandfather and father had proudly served in the Army; my grandfather was a World War II and Korean War veteran and my father served in Vietnam. I had graduated from high school in 1989, and after two unremarkable semesters at community college, I knew the last thing I wanted was to continue living at home and working for a fast food restaurant chain.
Fortunately, I had witnessed other friends join the United States Marine Corps and return home from boot camp completely transformed into a military man with their short haircuts and crisp uniforms. I knew then that this was what I wanted. So on June 15, 1990 I was sworn into the U.S. Marine Corps. I was 19 years old.
As I began my career in the U.S. Marine Corps, I spent the early years of my military career deployed in Somalia and was later stationed in Okinawa, Japan. Being a Marine and serving my country gave me sense of confidence and honor that I relished. So in 2002, I reenlisted and found myself in Kuwait and was ultimately called to serve in the Iraq war.
On March 21, 2003, my life changed forever.
Soon after combat began in Iraq, I was in charge of 11 U.S. Marines on a logistical convoy when I stepped on an Iraqi landmine outside my Humvee vehicle and became the first American wounded in the Iraq War. The explosion was so powerful it blew me to the ground ten feet away and took off part of my right leg. I can still remember the ringing in my ears from the blast.
I spent months in rehabilitation where I was visited by President Bush, First Lady Laura Bush and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. I was recognized by the military for my service and received a Purple Heart award. I was also interviewed by several major newspapers and magazines and I made numerous TV appearances, including on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Yet despite all the attention and focus on my life, today is the first time I have publicly talked about my sexuality in relation to my military service.
To be honest, each time I was commended on my courage, I couldn't help but remember how scared I was that I would be found out as gay and kicked out of the military. I remember the fear I felt when people around me in the military started debating the new "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy even before it became law. During training meetings people would make such nasty remarks about homosexuals. Still, my proudest moments during my 13 years in the military came when I would confide in one of my friends about my sexual orientation and they would still treat me with the same respect as before.
Although I'm no longer wearing the uniform of the U.S. Marine Corps, my mission continues to be protecting the rights and freedoms of all Americans. I have realized that I have an obligation to myself, my partner Darrell and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans across the country to stand up and speak out for our deserved rights.
So as I begin my first day as national spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign's efforts to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't tell," I'm excited to be joining Rep. Marty Meehan at a Capitol Hill press conference today to reintroduce the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, legislation to repeal this broken and discriminatory policy. I will also join hundreds of HRC members from across the country on Capitol Hill this week to meet with congressional leaders during the Human Rights Campaign lobby day.
Although I'm a little nervous about the effects my new public role may have on my immediate life and my family, I consider this anxiety to be a small price to pay for speaking up for the estimated 65,000 gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans that voluntarily and willingly serve our country in the military but yet are forced into fear and silence by this ban.
The undeniable truth is that not only is this policy just plain wrong because it discriminates against gay, lesbian and bisexual servicemembers, but the loss of thousands of dedicated personnel with critical skills and expertise clearly confirms that this ban is also a dangerous and costly compromise to our nation's security. In fact, in the nearly 14 years since this policy was first enacted, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimates that the government has spent between $250 million and $1.2 billion to investigate, eliminate and replace qualified service members who want to serve their country but can't because expressing their sexual orientation violates "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
Ironically, 73 percent of troops say they are personally comfortable in the presence of gays and lesbians and public opposition to the law has grown dramatically since "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was enacted. In 2005, polls indicated that 79 percent of Americans believe that gay, lesbian and bisexual servicemembers should be free to openly serve in the military.
My sacrifice was for the rights and freedoms of all our citizens and did not exclude GLBT Americans. In this time of conflict where our military is in desperate need of skilled personnel, Congress and the Department of Defense should be looking for ways to increase enrollment in the Armed Forces - and not restricting gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans from serving because of who they are.
Related News Stories:
Defending His Country, but Not Its 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Policy (Washington Post, February 28, 2007)
Eric Alva, Coming Out Against Don't Ask, Don't Tell (Human Rights Campaign)