PUL-E-ALAM, Logar Province, Afghanistan – Exactly one year since the ban on gays serving openly in the military was lifted, here’s a different way of gauging how the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” is playing out: How good is the media access to gay soldiers?
The short answer: It’s still a work in progress.
Ultimately, we got our story for NBC’s Nightly News. We spoke with a dozen or more gay or lesbian soldiers and airmen – both on relatively safe rear guard bases, but also on the front lines.
That wouldn’t have happened without the approval of military commanders and the cooperation of our “minders” – the Public Affairs Officers who were our liaisons to a gay community which, only months ago, still had to socialize covertly.
But it was an uphill, two-week battle, full of last minute changes and disappointments. And while in the end the military let us tell the story, we often felt, along the way, that some commanders simply didn’t want us snooping around such a sensitive issue for fear of opening a massive can of worms.
Reconciling ‘two lives’
For instance, the sudden cold feet of a young, gay combat engineer – who did not want to be named, based in eastern Afghanistan. Even though he had told his story to the national media before, he had never been publicly identified, and he canceled our interview just as we were to chopper out to meet him.
It turned out, like many gay soldiers, he had lived two separate lives. In this soldier's case, his private, gay life and his “normal” life with a wife and child back home. He had never “come out” to his wife or family.
But he faced an even bigger problem: By admitting to a gay relationship while married, he would also violate U.S. military laws against adultery, which can result in a dishonorable discharge. It made me realize how complicated the coming-out process can be for gay and lesbian service members.
As a Plan B, I made a quick call to see if we could set up a military embed on a large base in northern Afghanistan. Could we spend a couple of days with U.S. soldiers over Thanksgiving and get their story out to loved ones and our viewers? I asked.
“That shouldn’t be a problem, Jim,” was the answer from the very can-do Public Affairs Officer I spoke with.
“Good,” I replied. “And while I’m up there I’d also like to ask some soldiers a few questions about how the lifting of the ban on openly gay service members is going in their units.”
After a long pause, I heard: “I don’t think I’ll mention that to the boss.”
“Fine,” I said. “It was just a thought.”
A few hours later the same PAO left a text message: “Request not granted – sorry, Jim. The boss thinks it’s too unsafe up here right now.”
Slow ripple effect
There were other setbacks, usually a result of that gap “between two lives” – straight and gay, civilian and military. Many gay soldiers still choose NOT to tell their story rather than be caught in the collision.
It’s only been three months since the repeal took effect in the field, and the ripple from that change still has a long way to travel, despite the real freedom from the fear of being discharged from the military that all gay soldiers we spoke with now enjoy.
One example, the same military policeman who had no problem showing his face on-camera during a gay “coffee hour” at Bagram Air Field, canceled a more personal one-on-one interview the next day near his work station. An articulate soldier with a macho swagger, the MP apologized for the change of heart. But he hadn’t yet come out with some of his colleagues and wasn’t yet ready to do so.
A year ago the U.S. military was almost evenly divided over the lifting of DADT during war time. But we saw huge strides forward in retraining soldiers to deal with a new reality: Gays always served with honor during war and made their country proud, only now they’re able to do so without having to hide or lie.
Still, old habits die hard.
After conversing with gay male and female service members – many of them officers – at one of the “coffee hours,” our PAO was driving us back to our sleeping quarters when an overhead light caught the condensation on our front windshield and one word, written hastily by someone’s finger, appeared for all of us to see.
“Idiots!” belted out our PAO, excoriating his own comrades.
And I thought to myself, “Now that’s the reality check.”