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The gay soldiers that wanted to be on Fox

December 20, 2010 - 1:42 PM | by: Dominic Di-Natale

p>| OPINION |

ISLAMABAD, Dec 20, 2010 | It’s the story I regret most not reporting. While in Iraq and Afghanistan throughout 2009 and 2010 I was approached by more than a dozen American gay combat soldiers wanting to discuss living and fighting under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

In Iraq, the majority were at the massive sprawling Victory Base Complex outside Baghdad, where 20,000 or more soldiers were station. I met, Skyped or Y.I.M.-ed the others at F.O.B. Warrior in Kirkuk, F.O.B. McHenry at Hawija, F.O.B.s Warhorse and Normandy in Diyala, C.O.B. Adder outside Nasariyah, F.O.B. Marez and F.O.B. Diamondback in Mosul, Joint Base Balad at Baquba’a, C.O.S. Speicher near Tikrit, Camp Ramadi in Anbar Province, and Slayer, Stryker and Sather Airbase adjacent to V.B.C..

They were, like in wider society back home, everywhere. In the Green Zone, they were at Union III, F.O.B. Prosperity and at the press center known as C.P.I.C.. There were two gay Marines at the U.S. embassy that had been together on repeated deployments at both Saddam’s old palace by the Tigris and also at the lately-opened New Embassy Compound.

I was also in contact with a closet chaplain – one of two in Iraq, I learned. And I am still in touch with one very feisty lesbian who was stuck all the way out west surrounded by the remote sands at Al Asad.

One soldier showed me a website on his laptop where in December last year there were more than 340 male soldiers in Iraq actively seeking encounters and friendships while deployed. It was one of several established online sites gay soldiers use. SPAWAR, the Navy-managed internet provider for military bases in Iraq, firewalled it for machines in the Morale, Welfare and Recreation centers but those with third-party satellite and wireless access had no such problem.

Following this year’s increase in troops in Afghanistan, there are hundreds on the same sites openly reaching out, baring face pics, ACUs and all. Bagram Airbase and Kandahar Air Field could probably hold their own small Pride marches down the runways, one soldier joked in an email.

The first gay serviceman to contact me did so in a brave but disarming fashion. A specialist from Ft Carson, C.O. walked directly up to my cameraman and I while we were filming on base in Mosul last spring. He very pointedly said wanted to talk about how “you got something real wrong about the Army”.

At first I thought it was yet another soldier unhappy with press coverage of the war. Fox is big on military stories and we air both the successes and the failures of their combat efforts, which often draw pointed comments from servicemen.

He said it was a big story but he wouldn’t talk while the bases’ public affairs officer, who was escorting us, was present. Like others who emerged, the specialist, aged 21, didn’t want to bemoan living a lie or enduring the homophobic comments that punctuate the cultural requisite of male soldiers asserting their masculinity.

Instead, he and the other men I eventually interviewed, all of whom went outside the wire daily, had killed insurgents and dutifully covered their fellow men’s backs under kinetic and hostile conditions, explained that they were “out” to their unit and that those units either acknowledged it but had not chosen not to report them to command, were comfortable with them or actively embraced them – usually with a lot of good-natured soldierly ribbing. More often than not their squadron would defend them from slurs by other companies without revealing the truth.

What a story, what a scoop. Here was in-theatre evidence that disproved in numerous examples the argument that openly serving homosexuals were a threat to unit cohesion in a combat environment. While I was under no illusion that there would be companies and commands where it would be a fractious problem and that egos on both sides of the fence could clash within units, it clearly wasn’t the case in every example.

So, why didn’t I do it? I’d got the thumbs up from my editors in New York July this year but in many ways the story came too late for me. This was my last assignment in Baghdad, which came at the height of the combat troop drawdown from Iraq – after the most controversial conflict since Vietnam, this was the biggest moment in modern military history. We were constrained by time to revisit bases where the gay combat soldiers were stationed. Additionally, air movements were whittling down limiting movement (virtually gone were the days of jumping on a UH-60 Black Hawk and rotoring across the desertscapes on a whim) and, more crucially, troops were heading home.

There were politics, too. While soldiers are in theory free to talk to reporters, following the Gen McCrystal scandal last year there would have been repercussions for some men by a less tolerant senior command. Public Affairs officers now take names of all soldiers who speak to the media. That would have prohibited many from holding honest conversations and discretion.

It was also clear that my request would have been impeded by elements of military leadership after I gently sounded out a United States Forces–Iraq public affairs contact at Al Faw Palace, where U.S. command is headquartered on V.B.C.. I asked the wrong person – they turned out to not supportive of D.A.D.T in that they were explicitly intolerant of gays in the military, period.

But if it’s one thing I have learned from the U.S. military, that institution I so love and am honored to have worked with, it is that it is a master at adapting. It adjusted from an offensive force to a heart-and-minds corps where troops are often more social workers than soldiers. When it realized it had to rethink tactics in Iraq, the military changed from a Cold War-era conventional army to counter-insurgency tactics.

I am most certain it will adapt in the case of the repeal of D.A.D.T.. Even those model embodiments of masculinity, the Marines.

The U.S. Military is a cross-section of American society and it genuinely prides itself in it being one big family, warts and all. They live and breath that essential value on the frontline and back at home base.

When it comes to gays, they say every family has one and the Army, Air Force, Navy and the Marines have plenty. It’ll be rocky at first but let’s face it, we must all move on here. By nature, America is a progressive and inclusive society – that it can move forward after struggles of any scale is what makes it a model of inspiration to other nations.

After meeting 14 gay servicemen and women, I had deep understanding of their arguments for the repeal. I wasn’t entirely convinced before. I do, however, empathize with the servicemen who are troubled or daunted at the prospect assimilating openly gay people into their units. Suspecting and knowing your colleagues sexuality are two very different things. And yes, the showers are certainly not going to be comfortable for those who cannot reconcile with being in the proximity of homosexuals. Gay or straight, I wouldn’t want to purposefully expose myself to someone I wasn’t attracted to but felt they might have desires towards me, either.

The truth is it’s a new layer of resilience both sides are now obliged to acquire. Straight soldiers will need to assimilate. Suck it up, as they say so often in the Army. And gay soldiers will need thicker skins, too, because as open as they will now be allowed to be, candid, confrontational responses will come from those with firm convictions against them.

But if each serviceman and woman remembers, as they must, it’s mission first, soldier second, I believe over time the military will be better balanced and, yes, stronger.

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