Tank

The other day, one of Clay’s buddies from his Iraq deployment called to talk.  This was a bit of a surprise because Clay keeps a certain distance from his fellow soldiers, in order to simplify the task of keeping his life with me a secret.  Clay could only talk for a minute, but his buddy made him promise to call back – he had something he wanted to tell him.

This guy’s nickname is Tank, and a tank he is – barrel chested, tall, muscular.  He’s the kind of guy that lets you know right away that he won’t take any shit, and that you’d be sorry if you tried.  Clay and he nearly came to blows their first week in the desert over some stupid misunderstanding, as Clay isn’t one to back down – not even when faced with a tank.

But they gradually (and grudgingly) realized they liked each other and became friends.  They continued to trade barbs, but in a humorous game of one-upmanship that soldiers are so very good at.  The routine they developed entertained the guys around them, and provided much needed comic relief for Clay, too.

It took a while, but Clay did call Tank back.  They laughed and reminisced for a good half hour before the conversation ended without any further mention of what Tank had to get off his chest.  Clay was puzzled, but didn’t push.

Tank called again, and at the end of their conversation became very cryptic.  He started asking about Clay’s “girlfriend” and prospects of marriage, and then blurted out, “I can’t get married.”  Clay asked why not… there was a very long and very painful pause… and then Tank said, “Because I can’t legally marry my boyfriend.”

Clay, of course – given their history – kept him hanging for a moment or ten, and then fessed up himself.  “I knew it!”,  I heard Tank yell through the phone.  They filled each other in on their respective partners and then ended their conversation rather quickly; I think it was awkward to finally leap over that line they both had fought so very hard to cross…

Both confessed they had suspected the other was gay.  They each recognized in each other the careful and ambiguous use of pronouns, the hushed tones when talking on the phone, the fierce facade that said “Leave me the alone and mind your own damn business…”

Yet neither of them dared talk to the other about it.  There was too much at risk if their suspicions were wrong, and this makes me incredibly sad.  I wish there had been just one person over there that they could have comfortably confided in – someone they could spill their guts to without fear of reprisal.  Someone who would understand, so they didn’t feel so alone.

I realize that not all units are created equal, and that some soldiers are able to confide in their peers on a case by case basis.  But as long as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is on the books and the very real fear of discharge looms, many of our soldiers will continue to suffer without the deeper bonds of friendship.

**If you or your partner need (or might think you need) help dealing with the effects of wartime service, the following organizations provide free, confidential, and gay friendly counseling:**

The Soldiers Project

Give an Hour

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PTSD

I started wearing Clay’s dog tags the day he left for Iraq.  I vowed to wear them faithfully until the day he came home, and I was true to my word.  In times of fear or loneliness I would often catch myself clutching them tightly through the fabric of my shirt.  It sounds a bit odd I suppose, but I would also kiss them or hold them to my cheek while pleading for his safe return.

His first night back I hastily chucked them in the nightstand drawer, where they were quickly forgotten.  They seemed to have no meaning anymore when I now had the real thing curled up next to me in bed every night.  Perhaps I needed to forget what they felt like around my neck.

It first happened about a week after he returned:  We were sitting in a restaurant.  His eyes started to dart back and forth and he slowly inched himself back into the corner.   ”This is no good – this isn’t safe.  There are  no good exits.  This position is not defensible…”  I reached out, grabbed his shaking hand, and did my best to calmly talk him through it.

Sometimes he’ll start blinking faster, or his voice will get slightly higher, but it’s always his eyes…  it’s an expression I had never before seen on his beautiful face – an expression of concentrated panic, but it’s all just in the eyes…

Soldiers are supposed to be strong, you see.  Even when faced with memory loss, lapses in concentration, nightmares, flashbacks, angry outbursts… you’re just supposed to keep toughing it out, right?  And then one day you just can’t hold it together anymore.  ”I don’t know what’s happening to me”, he said.

When I published the link to The Soldiers Project in my last entry, I had no idea I’d be using it myself right away.  I am grateful we had someone to talk to who is supportive of gay and lesbian soldiers and their families.  They are working to find us counseling in our area.

Clay will also seek help from the VA, but we have been advised that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is alive and well at the VA” and to “be careful”.  As many of the issues associated with PTSD have to do with family life and intimate relationships, I wonder about the effectiveness of any therapy where you can’t be open about such things…

I put Clay’s dog tags back on today because there’s a part of him that still hasn’t come home yet.  I hope that sometime soon I’ll be able to return them to the nightstand, and once again forget how they feel around my neck.

**If you or your partner need (or might think you need) help dealing with the effects of wartime service, the following organizations provide free, confidential, and gay friendly counseling:**

The Soldiers Project

Give an Hour