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:**