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What a gay Marine taught me

I am a retired U.S. Marine, having been drafted at the end of the Vietnam War. At one time, I commanded a squadron of 1,200 Marines and sailors. And, like many of my fellow veterans, I believed that the Clinton-era “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy worked well, enabling some fine Americans to serve this great nation.

But although I embraced the policy then, I now know that it denied us the service of some highly talented men and women. It continues to cost us even after its repeal. Why the change in my viewpoint? It involves a fabulous Marine, a senior noncommissioned officer who retired early to pursue a long-term relationship openly. Hear my story.

In the Marines, as in the other services, it is an unwritten rule that senior enlisted men and women mentor newly minted officers in the ways of the service, and particularly in the ways of combat.

Soon after I retired, a member of my immediate family joined the Marines, eventually becoming a junior officer, and he was mentored by the NCO who is the focus of my story. One of the most important things he learned from his mentor was how to stay alive “down range.” Soon after training, their unit deployed to Iraq, where they faced significant danger. Firefights. House-to-house combat. Everyone came home from that tour.

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The NCO then went on to another unit and was promoted to sergeant major, the highest enlisted rank. He served additional combat tours with distinction, having dispatched many of the most despicable of our enemies, some at very close range. Tough, utterly unforgiving of any lack of discipline or preparedness, and utterly selfless, the NCO embodied what every service needs in its ranks.

We communicated frequently during his many combat tours and agreed to a visit in the future. Ultimately, his e-mails became more distant, then they stopped altogether. Why? Because “don’t ask, don’t tell” would not permit him to talk about what was really happening in his life.

I understand that now and am saddened. America lost a magnificent combat leader, one who possessed a precious talent that we need at this moment. I learned of his sexual orientation after his last e-mail, in which he referred me to his website. My follow-up notes to him have gone unanswered.

This Christmas, our family will be able to celebrate together, there won’t be a visit to a national cemetery, and that is in part, I firmly believe, because of what the NCO taught my family member.

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So, how should we view the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”? I no longer believe it’s something we should fear.

One view I’ve heard from my fellow veterans is that openly serving gays and lesbians will disrupt the order and discipline of the armed forces. It’s true that unrestrained sexual conduct can be disruptive. I know this because in the course of my service, I saw many heterosexuals whose lifestyles were extremely disruptive to good order and conduct. But this is a matter of character, not of sexuality. In the military, disciplined self-control is essential to mission success. All who serve -- gay or straight -- should be judged by the same high standards.

The idea that gays will pose new health risks is equally absurd. At the end of the Vietnam War, I was a young first lieutenant flying the venerable F-4 Phantom jet. Our squadron was based in the Philippines. One of my collateral duties was to serve as venereal disease control officer. As far as I know, we had no gays in our squadron then, but the venereal disease rate was horrendous, at one time reaching 50% in a 300-man squadron. The rate of infection was devastating, as troops who were being treated were not fixing jets. Our readiness sagged as a direct result. Since then, all of the services have worked hard to provide leadership, education and medical resources, which has greatly reduced the rate of infection. Preventing illness -- including sexually transmitted ones -- is a leadership issue first.

Integrating openly serving gay service members will not be easy, but integration is hardly new to the armed forces. Just consider the racial desegregation ordered on the eve of the Korean War, and more recently the integration of women into combat roles. A member of my family who is an active-duty Marine officer spent his Thanksgiving at Bethesda Naval Hospital. Among the wounded troops in that hospital there was no color or gender barrier: There were white, black, Latino, Asian American men and women recovering from horrific wounds. Probably some were gay. They served, and many of them will voluntarily return to finish their tour. Duty is duty.

In the simplest of terms, service in the U.S. armed forces is about drawing a weapon and standing a post. The work isn’t often glorious, but it is essential to the survival of our nation.

Two years ago I was in Afghanistan as a defense contractor providing special resources to a forward base near the Hindu Kush mountain range. My bunker was next to a U.S. Air Force Air Police detachment. A young black Air Force enlisted woman, probably 19 years old and 110 pounds, walked by me on her way to a position on the line. She flashed me a dazzling all-American smile and said, “Good morning, sir.” On her shoulder was a 50-caliber machine-gun, a very heavy and effective weapon. When I joined, young women would not have been allowed to operate a machine. Now our lives depended on her presence in the sector. And I have every confidence she performed her duty well.

So back to my friend, the now-retired Marine sergeant major and distinguished combat veteran. Do I like the idea of openly serving gays? No. Do I recognize that my military needs to look like my country? Yes. So to my fellow vets, if there is no room in the military for him, is there room for any of us?

Thank you for serving, Sergeant Major, and thank you for this Christmas. The nation will miss your service.

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Retired Marine Lt. Col. Tom Brannon works for the U.S. Navy as a military contractor in Ridgecrest, Calif.


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