In honor of Veterans Day I hung the Coast Guard flag from my last ship out the window of my apartment. Many others truly sacrificed or were sacrificed during their time in the service. My greatest sacrifice was serving in silence under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue. That last part seems to be forgotten most of the time, but it impacted my perception of a great many things including camaraderie and authority.
I wasn’t out in any sense when I signed up. I joined the Coast Guard because it is the only branch of the military that has a peace time mission. We would fight and give support in time of war, but spent peacetime performing a variety of missions like search and rescue, environmental protection, law enforcement, and aids to navigation. I was a Quartermaster and proudly navigated ships across the Atlantic and the Pacific. I am still extremely proud to have been part of a branch that not only serves the American people but has also had remarkable people serve in it. From Alex Haley, the author of Roots, to Douglas Munro, Medal of Honor Recipient who died at Guadalcanal, to the many people I served under and with. But not all of them.
In boot camp, one of the cadences we marched to was ‘got your back shipmate’ and I thought we all meant it. It didn’t matter if you got along on ship, you stick up for your shipmates and you don’t throw them under the bus. How wrong I was. This is not my coming out story. That wouldn’t happen for a few months after the lesbian purge on my first ship. A purge that taught me to play my newfound acceptance as close to the vest as possible.
I believed in the Coast Guard. I believed in shipmates. Most painfully, I believed in authority. That even if I didn’t agree with those that had it, their intentions were sincere and honorable. In 1996, I was jarringly divested of two out of three of those beliefs.
It happened so quickly. We had been down in San Diego for a few days. The last night in port, I had duty and stayed on ship. Several shipmates had gone to Tijuana and drank. A lot. One of them was my friend. They all got back drunk but unharmed and we pulled out for Alaska in the morning. Within the next few days, people were being pulled in before the captain. Apparently two of the women were seen kissing on the train back up to SD by a “shipmate” who was himself very drunk but also apparently disgusted and reported them. It went very quickly from there. By the time we reached Alaska, three women were being put on a plane back to CA to begin discharge proceedings. I was one of the people interviewed but was dating a male Coastie on another ship. The questions asked were extremely personal and direct. Yes, I was asked if I was gay. The woman who was my friend was not only asked but told if she lied, she would be in violation of the UCMJ (military code of laws). So she told the truth.
The thing that most affected me, after the loss of my friend, was that the captain broke the rules. The beauty of the military was the structure and the rules. The same rules applied whether you were a boot (fresh out of training) or an Admiral. This wasn’t the civilian world of money and influence. I admit this may sound naive, it was. But it was also something I accepted as truth. I did what I was told without question because that’s how the structure works. I didn’t have the option of not following the rules but that was ok because no one did. It assaulted my idea of fairness. Not just the ban, but the behavior of the command. The captain not only “asked” but he “pursued” fervently. Last I heard they were given Dishonorable Discharges. Which means, among many other things, they cannot enjoy the veteran’s benifits that I, and that “shipmate” and captain do.
How I viewed the world and my place in it changed the day they were put off the ship as much as it did when I came out myself shortly after. The latter broke something free, the former just broke something.
I am happy DADT and the ban have been lifted. But that battle had it’s casualties and they deserve to be remembered too.