21 September 2011

Free to Serve

Before my dad married my mom, he was an Army officer. He has always been very proud of his military service and I have always been proud of him serving. I remember as a kid seeing on his home desk and in his drawer the various badges and ribbons and insignia of rank he had worn on his uniform before I came along. I thought it was all very cool. I played soldier with my neighborhood friends like any other boy and imagined what it would be like to really be in the Army like my dad had been. As I grew it became clear that my asthma would disqualify me from any military service, which was disappointing. But I have remained proud of my dad’s service and have been very glad for that family connection to the service of our country.

I always respected the military traditions of duty and honor and integrity and meritocracy. Of goals and achievement, of judging and promoting based on performance and capabilities. The discipline that was inculcated, which enabled ordinary people to set aside or overcome their own foibles and do extraordinary things.

So I was stunned to eventually learn about the history of racial discrimination even in the U.S military and how relatively recently that discrimination was eliminated. I was amazed and embarrassed to read statements of people and politicians—and even senior officers—at the time who fought with everything they had to keep that racism in place and to prevent racial equality. Racism seems so indisputably opposed to everything the great American experiment stands for, to everything the United States military is sworn to protect, and everything I knew of its values.

And that’s why, as I learned about Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, read its history and saw its effects, I inevitably came to the same conclusions. It was the same bigotry, just directed at another group that’s also historically been misunderstood and abused and discriminated against, solely because of an unchosen personal characteristic the majority didn’t share. What could sexual orientation possibly have to do with one’s ability to do one’s job, whether military or not? So why should gay people be singled out for being kicked out of the military if the same kind of treatment was illegal in civilian settings? It just made no sense. It went beyond nonsensical to self-defeating and even damaging to national security as I read about the effects, about the cost of kicking out able, dedicated service members who wanted to stay and had key specialties the military needed.

Others far more knowledgeable have told that story in far more compelling detail than I could. Suffice it to say that I agree with the opinions of many senior officers: DADT was stupid, counterproductive, harmful. A terrible mistake.

And that in turn is why, with the memory of respect for my father’s service, last night I went to the San Diego LGBT Community Center to join the celebration of the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. I knew it was a historically important moment and I wanted to be with the hundreds of others, including active and retired military personnel, who would be there to celebrate the correction of this great wrong, and the step our military service took toward greater faithfulness to American ideals.

It was remarkable to hear the story of guest speaker Eric Alva, who sustained permanent damage to right arm and who lost his right leg to a land mine. Who knew the first American serviceman wounded in the Iraq war was a gay Marine? Or the stories of a female Navy Academy graduate kicked out for being gay, or an active duty Navy hospital nurse who the next day could go to work for the first time and say “Yeah, okay, so what?” Or the story of a highly decorated Army bird colonel, now retired and happily married to his husband.

It was inspiring to see the obvious patriotism and love of country in the crowd of hundreds who listened to those stories, to see the dozens of little flags waved during every speech, to hear the cheers and shouts and military parlance, to see the pride and happiness on countless faces. They whooped and cheered as one of the speakers described waking up that morning feeling as if a huge weight had been lifted from her shoulders, and how elated she was that she could finally just be herself, honestly and without the deception that DADT had forced so many to live with for so long. I’m sure it was just like the first day of emancipation for African-American soldiers in the Civil War, finally free and eager to defend the nation that had given them that freedom.

But most inspiring of all was when the colonel, final speaker on the program, asked everyone to stand and join him in reciting the pledge of allegiance. And this time, he said, say those last six words like you’ve never said them before. Because starting today, he said, we are closer to making them true.

Click the Play button below to see what followed.

1 comment:

ASimpleFriend said...

Hello Mr Donaldson,
I just wanted to say you have a fantastic blog your writing here, and I Think that people should pay more attention to these talks. It would help understanding and tolerance. I gladly say I will be looking forward to your next blogs. :)