All in

On the 6th of September I got my US Military dependent ID card.  The TSgt who issued it was “very excited” and kept apologizing unnecessarily for being so.  It was her first same-sex ID, after all, even though we weren’t able to get an appointment until three days after they were allowed to be issued.  She was appalled that Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi National Guard Units had refused to issue any to their lgb families.  She was sweet and earnest and eager and I’ll never forget her.

This blog was a lifeline to me as I muddled through being an unrecognized military spouse of a deployed servicemember under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  Writing was a painful-yet-cathartic venting of steam that saved me from the stress  associated with worry, hiding and lying… not to mention the ever-present sting of injustice.

Since repeal, some joyful ‘firsts’ have brought me back to this keyboard – but not always.  I wrote about Clay’s coming out at his promotion, attending our first formal banquet on base as a couple, and of course the incredible opportunity we had to go to the first Commander In Chief’s Inaugural Ball after repeal.

But we have also attended the State National Guard Ball, had family pictures taken on base by a photographer, staffed a Military Partners and Families Coalition booth at base Family Day, and organized the first lgbt outreach event (in the form of a potluck) on a National Guard installation.  Each of the events were weighty affairs that warrant more than a passing mention; yet the more integrated I become into ‘normal’ military life the less I feel the need to vent my spleen here.   As I was able to come out of the shadows by degree, so lessened my need to decry my invisibility.

It was my hope that, in telling my story, people might be moved enough to reconsider their prejudices.  America did hear our collective stories, and something shifted.  (The voices were always there of course, but our country wasn’t ready to fully listen.  Our ears were slowly opened by generations of activists whose courage and sacrifice paved the way to where we find ourselves today.)  A minority never achieves a civil rights victory without the express consent of the majority.  Consent can only happen after we are moved to empathy for those whom we think are apart from us – different.  This change only occurs when folks begin to see themselves in our stories.  Never stop telling.  Please.

I would like to report to you that I was a fearless, brave storyteller – but that would be a lie.  I was scared.  Terrified.  Walking down that hallway in the Pentagon I thought my heart would beat right out of my chest.  Same thing at Clay’s promotion and each formal event where we were the only same-sex couple.  But I guess I did it anyway because I was more scared of doing nothing.

Something shifted in me, however, the moment I had that dependent ID in my hot little hand.  Clay asked me, “How do you feel?”  Safe.  Included.  Honored.  Proud.  Grateful.   Comfortable at last in a place – in a role – that before today was thick with the asterisks and caveats that set us apart from other military families.  It has never felt better to be ‘ordinary.’

The most important thing for me, however, is that the US military took care of one of its own on the 6th of September – by recognizing and taking care of his family.

ID

Dream

As I wrinkle my forehead trying to remember the dreams I had last night, I come up with a few fleeting images – just impressions, really.  My dreams, when I remember them, are usually a jumble of symbolic mumbo-jumbo, such as: I’m driving my car that turns into my living room, or I’m flying on a plane that somewhere in the middle of the dream becomes a giant house, etc.  But then there are the ones that stand out still; ones that I can close my eyes now and see as vividly as the moment I dreamed them.

When I was 10 years old, I had the most beautiful dream.  My whole family was at some formal event where it was night and we were dancing on a large and dimly lit dance floor.  There were lanterns and streamers and flowers, and people were laughing and happily chatting away in small groups.  I spent the whole night holding my partner close, spinning around and around that dance floor.  I experienced for the first time this strange, intense feeling of  peace and security, anchored with a feelings of happiness and belonging.  “This is what love feels like”, I told myself.

When I awoke the next morning I reveled in this feeling of contentment and began to go over the dream in my head.  Suddenly my happiness gave way to confusion, and then the confusion turned to shame.  In my dream I had been so deliriously happy while dancing cheek to cheek all night with another man.  All those names the other kids called me in school must be true.  Everything that society told me I should be, I HAD to be – I wasn’t.  I was broken, I was sick.

As I close my eyes and relive that dream now, there is no shame or sadness.  The joy and love I felt was pure and innocent – untainted by the judgement that being different is wrong.  But from that day forward I stuffed my feelings away; pretending as best I could to be like everyone else, yet struggling inside and always feeling incomplete.  I went to many proms and weddings over the years, none of which compared to that simple dream I had when I was in fifth grade.

On January 21st, 2013 (Inauguration Day) I nervously stood in a long security line for the Commander in Chief Ball, surrounded by tuxes, gowns and the medal-bespangled fancy dress of our men and women in uniform.  “Could this really be happening?”, I thought.  Yet somewhere underneath all the butterflies there was this irrefutable and powerful feeling that this was good and right and just – that this was normal.  That feeling pushed me forward and into the great hall, and then to take my husband’s hand as we walked to the dance floor.

And then, there we were.  Dancing.  He held me close, and the warmth of his embrace stopped all time and blotted out all sound.  35 years melted away, and I was living inside my dream of joy.IMG_4825IMG_4788

firsts

Post-repeal is a time of firsts for most gay and lesbian servicemembers who survived Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: First time coming out to someone on base, first time putting up family pictures at your desk, first time bringing your spouse or partner on base, first time attending an official event as a couple… and so on.  Although the excitement and nervous anticipation of what might happen diminishes over time, it still hasn’t totally gone away yet – even a year after repeal.

Clay’s coming out has been a happy and supportive event; yet so much attention was given to the naysayers prior to repeal that I keep waiting for the other shoe to fall.

Today Clay proudly marched in our town parade with the local VFW.  In our rural county, towns of of 500-800 people are spread 8-10 miles apart.  Each one has a traditional summer festival with a parade – usually with a name that celebrates a local crop or a particular historical peculiarity.  Ours used to be a strawberry festival, but now features restored classic cars.  To locals, these parades are a big deal.  Local businesses and organizations slap together floats, the rodeo queen and mounted sheriff’s posse trot by (yes, we really do have a sheriff’s posse…), and candy is flung from wailing emergency vehicles to amped-up youngsters all along the route.  We have tricked-out logging trucks, local candidates pressing the flesh, cheerleaders and 4-H.

But the VFW, following their police escort, always leads the parade.  This is the first time, that we know of, that an out gay man has marched in uniform in our local parade.  Clay was most certainly not trying to make a political statement.  His reasons, then?  In his words, “To honor those who have gone before, for a sense of belonging, and because I’ve earned the right.”

Oh there were shocked faces, but not like you would think…  Most came from acquaintances and neighbors that had never seen Clay in his uniform.  Maybe some of them didn’t even know he is still in the National Guard.  But they all waved or came up and shook his hand.

And in the end, it was no big deal – he was simply a servicemember like the others marching beside him.  In the park before and after the parade older people approached him and told their stories.  Clay listened patiently, not really knowing what to say.  “They just needed someone to hear them”, he said.  They told their stories of sons and daughters, fathers and grandfathers who had served – truly amazing stories full of pride and pain, told with teary eyes.  I saw today that a man or woman in uniform acts like a touchstone to many; bringing out the things that move them deeply.  And in this way, my love, you taught me a little bit about what it means to ‘honor those who have gone before’.

miscellany

Recently, my husband ran into one of the guys on base that he felt had been avoiding him since the promotion. Clay had suspected, given this young man’s many religious tattoos, that he had a problem with Clay’s coming out. This time, however, the young man whipped out his iPhone and started scrolling through a plethora of photos of a common friend – attaching a lengthy narrative to each one. Clay just flat-out asked him why he was suddenly talking to him. The young man appeared confused. Clay then asked him if he had been avoiding him because he was gay. “No. I’m just not comfortable talking socially with Senior NCOs.”

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Clay had never used his official office at his shop. He’s in the Guard and had decided to let the full-time Guardsman under him use it – preferring to simply have a desk next to the other guys in the main office. After his promotion, however, several of his peers approached him and told him he needed to reclaim his office as his own. At first he was offended; as he felt being “right in the thick of things” promoted the collaboration necessary to get the job done. But the military runs on a leadership hierarchy and he was reminded that such things were expected of him.

And thus arrived Clay’s first opportunity to decorate his own office ‘as he wished’. Soon there was a sofa, coffee table, dorm fridge (see – I refrained from calling it a beer fridge…) and the much-worshipped coffee maker. Then up on the wall went framed momentos from his military career. And there, on his desk for the first time, he placed a picture of the both of us. Together. Grinning foolishly for the camera, with his arm around my shoulder.

I wondered how this would be received, but the last of a series of photos that Clay texted me that day showed this: Two of his guys sprawled on the couch with their booted feet on the coffee table, another casually leaning against the wall with his hands in his pockets, and yet another tilting back in the chair next to his desk.

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Clay decided to join our local VFW. Our town has a population of about 500, and the annual summer festival and parade is a pretty big deal. There’s the usual assortment of antique cars, logging trucks, emergency vehicles, local politicians and civic groups – all tossing candy to the families lined up on either side of the short parade route. Clay decided that this will be the first year he will march with the VFW in uniform. The mostly elderly, conservative contingent didn’t seem to have a problem with Clay’s joining (he even paid for a lifetime membership.) To my knowledge, it will be the first time an openly gay member of the military will march down Main Street – and on equal footing with his peers, too. Yeah – I’ll try not to be a sloppy mess on the sidelines… We’ll see how it goes.

Family

Sometimes, in our need to love and be loved we tender our hearts to those who, with such a delicate thing in their care, either willfully or ignorantly damage us profoundly.

With a needful smile how we open our arms wide for the sting of the first salvo. How doubly painful when our veins carry the very same blood…

Oh, to disengage from that destructive embrace – to shake off the illusions of duty or obligation! To stand alone and be buffeted by the heat of guilt and blame, shame and need.

Fearless/Fearfull

Clay is fearless now in how he introduces me to other military people. We were standing next to a wounded combat vet as we waited in line to get into my niece’s boot camp graduation ceremony. They started talking shop, then out came the “My husband doesn’t have base access” line. There was no discernible reaction other than some silence and mild confusion before the conversation picked up again.

(I always cringe at these moments – I can’t help it. I’m terribly afraid of seeing the hurt in my husband’s eyes if he is publicly rejected. I am so proud of his strength, yet want to yell ‘BE CAREFUL!” at the same time.)

The next day at the airport the wounded vet approached us with his family, made sure to tell us how nice it was to meet us, and wished us well on our journey.

Soon after another man, with a graduating child in tow, recognized Clay and started up a conversation. Turns out they are based together. In the course of their conversation I am mentioned, it also goes very well, and I wonder when exactly I’ll stop cringing in anticipation of a negative reaction?

Reconnection

In 1984 a skinny, fresh-faced, 18 year old local boy from Hawaii said goodbye to his family and headed to Fort Benning, GA for basic training – ‘Fort Beginning’, as they called it. He was festooned with leis, as was the custom, and had on his best Hawaiian shirt. Upon meeting the drill sergeant, his belongings were separated into ‘keep’ and ‘trash’… His carefully wrapped leis were thrown away, but the smokes were kept in case he earned the right to get them back later.

This was the beginning of my husband’s military career – the start of a journey that saved an awkward island kid from a sad and brutal past and built him into the beautiful man that I now share my life with. For 19 years I have heard the stories. I’ve seen the pictures; labeled carefully and tucked into albums. We’ve toured the long-since shuttered barracks, and I saw how his eyes lit up as he touched the building.

Over the next decade of serving in the infantry he came to terms with being gay, and then left military service after the implementation of DADT. He went back in, of course, after a ten year break in service; and you know that he’s now fully out to his current unit.

I’m not sure Clay ever thought he would be able to reconnect with the guys he spent so much time with early in his career. (Back then the Army was doing something called ‘COHORT’, or Cohesion Operational Readiness and Training – which basically meant that recruits went through basic together and then stayed together for the next three years.) But yesterday he saw that they had recently formed a facebook group.

He fretted for a few minutes about how he might be received, and I told him that it would be ok if he wanted to be discreet and feel things out first. I feared how he would take rejection from a group of guys that had been so important to him. In the end he decided to jump in with both feet, posting “I know that some of you might not agree with who I am or how I live my life, but I am excited and honored to have found all of you again.”

Surprising responses started coming in immediately:

“I always knew”

“I’m glad you can finally live your life openly”

“Welcome home”

We were both stunned. And yeah, I teared up a bit… But, the most awesome response came from a guy whose daughter had come out of the closet. He told Clay that he had never forgotten Clay’s friendship and how Clay had been kind to him so many years ago. He then related to Clay how he had told his gay daughter this:

“Years ago I served with a gay soldier in the infantry. He was my friend. Don’t ever let anyone tell you what you can do or who you can be.”

Oh yeah – you better believe I cried…

Never Good News

It’s never good news when the phone rings in the middle of the night.  Strange how phones don’t really ring anymore;  yet “vibrate” can still do the trick quite nicely, thank you.  You try to go back to sleep – convince yourself that it’s nothing important.  Then you hear the double buzz telling of voicemail, glance at the screen to see the name of a relative you haven’t spoken to in years and, well…

How is one supposed to deal with the death of an estranged parent?  Where exactly is it said?  Some wounds are too deep to be forgotten – history can not be unwritten!

A much wiser person once told me that forgiveness benefits most the one who was wronged.  I never really understood what that meant until I saw my husband walk behind his father’s casket.

 

Three Paths from Iraq

As I was planning our one thousand mile journey back to the reservation to attend Clay’s father’s funeral, I got a call from our friend Linda.

“Please call Barb. Last night her son locked himself in his room. The gun went off, but he’s ok…”

These two women that I work with, Linda and Barb, both have sons who went to Iraq. Both were there for the initial ‘shock and awe’. Linda’s son got pinned down and watched helplessly as the guys around him got picked off one by one. Six months ago he locked himself in his car with his gun and took his own life.

At the time Linda’s son lost his battle with PTSD, I didn’t even know that her son had been to Iraq. We had been friends at work for years, but had not worked at the same location for quite some time. We would still see each other now and then – hug, kiss, chat briefly and then each go on our way.

Clay and I have tried to comfort her as best we can. Clay has been very honest with her about his own struggles since, and she has been able to alleviate her grief by creating a non-profit in her son’s name to help military families in need.

As for Barb: I vaguely knew that her son had been in the military, but our brief reunions did not allow for more in-depth catching up. Yesterday she told me that he had been deployed to Iraq three times and was still in the service. She said he was having debilitating flashbacks, paranoia, and was unable to sleep. He was shaking violently when he took the gun and locked himself in the bedroom. The gun went off while he was handling it and the bullet did not strike him.

For the briefest moment I was taken back to the exact moment Clay stood in our laundry room, shaking and wide-eyed. “I don’t know what’s happening to me” he said. “I think I’m going crazy.” My heart shattered into a million tiny pieces; but my subsequent desperate phone call to The Soldiers Project began our journey of healing.

So, as I talked to Barb about her son, I unloaded everything we had learned on the road to recovery. “There is a way out of this. There is help nearby – wherever he is.” I bombarded her with every available resource close to her son’s location and did my best to reassure her that everything was going to be ok. She phoned back later to let me know they had gotten an appointment the next day with one of the PTSD experts. I hope that he is in good hands now.

As I write this Clay is laughing and joking with his sister and nieces as we slowly wind our way toward South Dakota. I can’t help but think Linda’s son could be laughing and joking with his family if he had been able to get help in time. I hope Barb’a son is able to get the help he needs.

Most of all, I just feel very, very fortunate.

Banquet

So this is what it feels like to stop holding your breath? I kinda like it…

A few months ago Clay realized that his State National Guard Awards Banquet was on the same date in February as (and three thousand miles away from) an important family function that we had committed to a year earlier. Here was my very first opportunity to attend an official military function (not counting his promotion/coming out ceremony), and now I was going to have to miss it.

I debated in my head about 30 seconds and then said, “My family will have to understand – I’m going to the Banquet.” (And to be honest, that important family gathering never even had a chance…)

My father didn’t understand. He had been active duty and National Guard and said he couldn’t see how something as minor as an awards banquet could be so important. He understood that Clay, as an NCOIC, had to be there – but there was no reason why I shouldn’t skip the banquet and continue as planned.

What he said: “I’ve been to so many of those things over the years, and my spouse wasn’t required to go to any of them. I’m disappointed.”

All I heard was: “I’m disappointed in you.”

And then a little switch flipped in my head, I went off with both barrels, and then hung up. Not exactly my proudest moment…

Once I had cooled down, he told me that he was disappointed that he wasn’t going to spend time with me – that’s all. So I told him that he had to understand that this wasn’t just some stupid party that I could afford to skip. I had to go. I had to go for me.

As the only out couple at Clay’s small base it felt like everyone would be watching to see how we would handle our first opportunity to mix with the straight couples. Would he dare bring me? Who would we sit with? How would the leadership react? How would we behave?

I told my father that I wasn’t Clay’s dirty little secret anymore and that I was going to every single function, large or small, from here on in. Nothing will ever make up for the things I missed, but just try and stop me from participating now.

“I had no idea”, he said.

We got to the banquet a little early and sat at an empty table. We were getting lots of looks, but it was hard to interpret them. Soon we were flanked at the table by two of David’s good friends. Then the 1st Sgt came to sit. Then the Chief. Then the Superintendent. Then the Family Readiness Coordinator. Then the Commander – all at our table, and there weren’t any pre-assigned seats.

And that was it. We laughed and ate and drank… and it was no big deal. I got hugs and handshakes, just like the other spouses. Clay’s leadership sent a very clear message: This will not be an issue here. Lead by example.

So now I breathe a bit easier as I think about going to the change of command ceremony or the upcoming Military Ball. Do I have a chip on my shoulder? Absolutely – but it’s for ME to knock off. The more I go, the more normal it will become, the more comfortable I will feel and the less nervous I’ll be.