PW presents an excerpt of "Our Time," a new book by local airman Josh Seefried.
But Recruit Jordan didn’t break because he was heartbroken. He broke because, after he came out, he was brutally mocked by the DIs and recruits in his company. Once the news was let out, it was a constant gauntlet of gay jokes and remarks from the DIs. It made my stomach turn. There wasn’t a thing I could do about it due to fear that I might get exposed myself and be released for being gay. I wish I could have done something about it. But I didn’t.
All recruits slept in bunked racks and Jordan had a top rack. So one night, Recruit Jordan tied a tent rope around his neck to a pack and pushed it off his rack. He wanted to kill himself. His rack mate below stopped him and the fire watch woke up the duty drill instructor in the process. Jordan was immediately pulled from his platoon. He had a nervous breakdown, and was seen by a psychologist in medical. Later he was processed for separation for attempted suicide and released, but nothing was done to the drill instructors that had provoked this mess. I believe the drill instructors that harassed Jordan did so to break him down and push him out of the military. They wanted him out of there, and it is easier to discharge a recruit with suicidal ideations than to dismiss under DADT.
I tell this story to fellow service members because I want them to know firsthand what damage can be done when you disclose your sexual orientation to your command. Many gay service members go to great lengths to hide their secret lives. I know I did.
During my time at the recruit depot, I went from senior drill instructor to chief drill instructor. I was able to persuade recruits not to out themselves to the company staff. I was able to inspire them to stay in and finish their enlistment without fear of exposure. I was careful how I worded my counseling sessions, but I got my message across: Stay in. If I can do seventeen years, so can you.
I push people to stay in because I don’t want them to end up like Recruit Jordan. The double life that so many of us have to endure takes its toll, but it’s a necessity if you want to survive in the military.
Recruit Jordan, if you happen to read this story, I am so sorry I couldn’t help you on that cold, gloomy day when the drill instructors antagonized you. I am sorry I was not strong enough to stop it. I hope you’re living a happy, fruitful life, and I pray that God is taking care of you.
Scott Konzem is a captain and C17 pilot in the U.S. Air Force. He is currently stationed at McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey:
As an active duty C17 pilot, my job requires extensive periods of travel—sometimes in the form of deployments, but most times in the form of trips lasting ten to twenty days. It’s difficult enough to keep in touch and remain emotionally engaged given this sort of schedule, but adding “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” into the equation has made the challenge even greater for countless same-sex couples.
Communication while on the road is a serious challenge. “Morale phones” aren’t easily available, and trying to have a censored conversation makes conversation more difficult still. Initially, I would try to keep my conversations brief and brotherly, so that anyone listening in would think I was talking to a family member instead of my partner. I couldn’t say “I miss you” or “I love you” for fear of being monitored or overheard. Using any sort of email or chat programs over the government computer network also made me very leery, because there are people whose job is to monitor communication. I understand they aren’t necessarily hunting for gays, but the fear was always there that the wrong person could read the wrong email and report me. As a result, my partner and I found it difficult to remain emotionally engaged, and the time I’ve spent away has been the most difficult in our relationship.
At some point, I broke down and bought a worldwide cell phone so that we could text like normal people in a relationship without fear of being monitored. It’s all about the little things, and being able to say “I love you” or “I’m going crazy without you” can make all the difference in the world. Then, about two years into the demanding travel schedule, I also gave up on trying to censor myself over government communication sources. I stopped caring—it wasn’t worth the stress to our relationship to constantly live in fear of Big Brother discovering our illegal and supposedly immoral relationship. It’s not like we were being graphic or pornographic anyway; we simply needed to communicate like everyone else.
The second challenge is on the home front for my partner. The Air Force has a great spouse network (or “spouse mafia,” as we call them) that provides support and encouragement during the hard times. It’s important for a person to feel like they’re not alone, and the spouse mafia does a great job at providing that support. Unfortunately, because our relationship has been forbidden, my partner has had no support. He has had to deal with everything a military spouse has to deal with, from loneliness to prolonged periods with no contact, alone. The way my partner handles this situation is a testament to his strength and inner fortitude. It’s not the sort of thing anyone should ever have to face alone—yet he does. No matter how miserable my situation is overseas, I always tell myself, “I chose this career.” Although my partner chose to be with a military man, his choice was not quite the same as mine. I know his own friends do all they can to help him through the difficult times, but nobody really understands what it’s like unless you’ve been through it yourself.
I also feel isolated when I’m away from home. It gets old having to put on the straight act day after day. When I’m not deployed, I don’t have to keep up the charade twenty-four/seven—at the end of the day I can go home and be myself. But at some point, this got to be too much. My sexuality has never dominated my personality, but after months of having to lie all the time, I began to feel frustrated and lonely. I was never lucky enough to deploy with other gay service members, so I didn’t have others I could be myself around.
I eventually gave up—all the lying was making me crazy. I started violating “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and told coworkers who were close to me. I was moved and encouraged by the reactions of my peers, who all continued to love and support me. Finally I could have an honest conversation. The fact that no one had any issues with my sexuality was tremendously encouraging and suggests to me that there won’t be many serious issues in the postrepeal era.
All we can do is hope it continues to get better. Maybe some religious zealots will still have a problem with who I am—someday I hope they’ll see the light too—but at least the government-sanctioned violation of my rights has begun to stop. I look forward to a world in which my partner and I will feel like we are part of the same military community as everyone else, and in which who I am will elevate rather than threaten my career. My hope is that the DADT repeal is just the beginning—that it will serve to open other doors, finally bringing an end to other legalized discrimination, such as the Defense of Marriage Act.
Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. from Our Time by Josh Seefried. Copyright © Joshua David Seefried, 2011, 2012. More online at joshseefried.com and outserve.org.
* Starred names have been changed for privacy.
PW's 2015 Gift Guide
Dinner with Luke Palladino