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”
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…