It’s been a week now.
A week since Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed.
Despite dire predictions and the horrified wailing from the general direction of the American Southwest, there’s been no mutiny in the ranks, no revolt, no revolution. There’s been no desertions, singly or en mass. There has been no sudden collapse of good order and discipline. Morale and esprit de corps remain high (or as high as you would expect given that we’re now entering our tenth year of perpetual combat operations). Our military medical system hasn’t collapsed under the sudden onslaught of Teh Gay Diseases. Soldiers aren’t wandering about holding hands and sporting rainbow colored berets and pastel camies.
No, it’s been pretty much business as usual.
As you probably know, I spent most of my life in the US Navy. Being retired, I’m no longer on active duty, but I’m not entirely a civilian either. These days I work with both US Air Force and US Army personnel. I’m surrounded by the military on a daily basis. Given my background and embedded as I am, I enjoy a vantage point that gives me a fairly good cross-sectional view of the US Military. I see things. I hear things. And you’d think the DADT repeal would be a hot topic around base. You’d think, man, as big a deal as the repeal was on Capitol Hill, in Washington, at the Pentagon, military folks would be talking about it. Given the sheer volume of pundit bloviating from FoxNews, and the squawking from those Lame Ducks, and the enormous amount of hot flatulent air emanating from John McCain, you’d think then that DADT would be a big damned deal around here. Wouldn’t you?
If you thought that, you’d be wrong.
Seventeen years ago, when Bill Clinton hammered out the deal that would let gays serve covertly in the military, I was stationed in Maine, a student at a small specialized training facility. The Lieutenant in charge shut down the course and gathered staff and students into the classroom to ask us all what we thought of the new policy. He didn’t try to explain Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (probably because the regulation seemed fairly self explanatory) or what it would mean to the military or to us in particular – we were all involved in a highly classified and unusual program, and upon graduation, assuming we graduated, we’d all be headed off to small, very tightly knit, self-contained units in remote and isolated locations. In garrison we would live like any other small military unit ashore, but when deployed to the field our twelve person teams lived in each others’ pockets and there was no privacy at all. Our ability to carry out our highly complex and difficult mission, often under extreme circumstance, depended entirely on how well we worked together, on how well we got along. If we couldn’t trust each other, if we couldn’t come together as a team, we would most certainly fail. Given our situation, there wasn’t much we didn’t know about each other – and I happen to know that more than one of those folks was indeed gay, but I didn’t ask and they didn’t tell and DADT didn’t really change much of anything. The Lieutenant certainly didn’t explain how this change in policy would affect us, he just wanted our opinions regarding gays serving secretly among us (and frankly I’m pretty sure the LT was gay, but I digress). As I recall, most of us didn’t care one way or the other, I know I didn’t. The exception, of course, was the fundamentalist Christian member of our cadre – who opined loudly that God had created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve (the first time I’d ever heard that particular expression. It wouldn’t be the last).
Oddly enough, my training group, the twelve of us gathered in that classroom wondering how to answer the Lieutenant’s question, was the first to incorporate women – two of them in fact.
The program was fairly young in those days, only a couple of years old, but up until my class it had been a good ole boy kind of assignment. Given the nature of the mission, the harsh physicality of it, the isolation, the close quarters, it had been designed as a male-only mission. The introduction of woman, by Congressional decree in the immediate aftermath of the Navy’s Tailhook Scandal, was received about like you’d expect in the male-dominated Navy of that time, i.e. not well. The quarters, equipment, and machines we lived in, both in garrison and in the field, had to be modified in order to provide a bare modicum of privacy – something that had never been necessary before. Odd questions came up, embarrassing questions, things that people didn’t know how to deal with. Here’s an example (one of many): In the field, we were self-contained. We lived and worked within specialized shelters, semi-trailers coupled together into a mission complex. In one of the shelters there was a very small shower/toilet area. Given the parameters we had to operate under, our system could not store wastes, e.g. we had no sewage tank like you’d find in an RV. The shower and small sink therefore drained gray water to a pit outside. But, obviously, that wasn’t an option for the toilet. Instead we used something called an Incinolet, commonly referred to as the “Atomic Shitter.” This foul monstrosity was a stainless steel throne with a clamshell device under the seat. You put a tissue-paper liner in the bowl, did your business, and when you were done you stood up and closed the lid and pressed a foot pedal on the base of the machine. The waste bag would (hopefully) drop into a bin underneath and (hopefully) be incinerated into (hopefully) sterile ash by high voltage electric coils. There were some drawbacks. The bag didn’t always completely clear the clamshell, which meant that the machine wouldn’t work, sometimes you’d have to reach in there and fix it. Even when the bag dropped on the correct trajectory the system was complex and finicky and didn’t always work right. It took twenty or thirty minutes per cycle, depending on, uh, well, the size of the load. It vented clouds of noxious smoke to the outside, which often, depending on the prevailing wind, blew directly into the shelter environmental control air intake and filled our life support system with the sickening stench of burning crap (more than once, the shelter’s Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological protection systems were activated in an attempt to filter out the foul cloud, often with less than complete success). God help you if the power failed during a turd burn because then the exhaust system would shut down and the outside vent flaps dropped closed and the shelters would fill with dense shit-flavored smoke. At least once a watch, depending on usage, the unit’s ash pan would have to be emptied (people living on MRE’s tend to need to use the toilet a lot, it’s true, you can look it up), a job that was, shall we say, not particularly popular – especially if the incinerator didn’t finish the job completely and left you with a honeypot of bubbling hot liquefied feces, or just failed to work altogether, which happened so often that it became a tired joke (remember, military equipment is built by the lowest bidder). Another interesting quirk of the Atomic Shitter was this: you never, ever, ever, pushed the flush pedal whilst enthroned. Really. Because, see, sometimes, the previous load was still burning down there under your bum and while this made the stainless steel seat nice and warm (something deeply appreciated when we operated in northern winter Maine or Alaska at -30F), pushing the pedal when the cooker was engaged would open the clamshell letting oxygen into the incinerator compartment resulting in orange sooty flames shooting up out of the bowl – filling the shelter with both the smell of burning turds and the smell of burning ass hair, usually followed by yelling and cursing. Yes, the Atomic Shitter was the source of much amusement, and much horror, and just something we lived with as part of the job.
But see, here’s the thing, up until my class, nobody had ever wondered if the toilet would work for women – or to be more precise, women’s particular needs, say like feminine hygiene products. Seems silly, doesn’t it? If the incinerator would (hopefully) vaporize human waste, it should (hopefully) have no problem with pads and tampons. Right? Well, no, actually. Or rather, maybe. Depending. The system was designed to (hopefully) work with wet human waste (and it didn’t work all that great when operated within design parameters), what would happen when you introduced cotton, paper, and plastic? You might have a fire, which in our self-contained system was a major concern. The plastic or foam material from certain products could melt onto the electrodes, fouling (heh heh) the system. If it failed we didn’t have much alternative other than finding a convenient tree and dropping trou at -30F. And what if we couldn’t put that stuff in there? What would we do with it? Store it? For weeks? Where? There were twelve to fourteen of us living inside a space about the size of a minivan (with a menstruating woman for God’s sake) – there wasn’t any extra room for the storage of biological waste. What the hell were we supposed to do? Congress didn’t bother to tell us that, they just waved their flabby arms and said, “make it so.”
In the end, the manufacturer gave us a list of products that could be safely disposed of in the incinerator and the women used those for the duration of the deployment if it became necessary and the issue became moot (ultimately, and against regulation, we started ordering Port-O-Potties from a local vender whenever we happened to be deployed and just stopped using that stinking monstrosity altogether). Again, seems silly, all this concern about something simple, doesn’t it? Funny thing: after all of that, those two women didn’t work out and both left the program within a year – but many female Sailors followed them and by the time I helped decommission the program years later, women had been an integral part of the teams for so long that few even knew that it had ever been different.
That same exact problem, the hygiene product problem, was a huge issue when women began going to sea on Navy combat ships in large numbers – as a combat ship’s sanitation system simply was not designed to deal with feminine hygiene products on a large scale. When those ships were built, nobody ever thought about female crew, there were no such things. But the Navy and military changed and somebody did have to think about it. It was a minor thing, comparatively speaking. But that and the myriad of other issues, some real, some imagined, some simple, some horribly complex, the difficult issues that come from putting young, physically fit, very active, and by design strongly heterosexual people together into small spaces, and isolated, stressful, and often dangerous situations for long periods of time had to be dealt with – and in fact we’re still dealing with it. And it is far, far more complex than simply waving a magic wand, or changing a law or a regulation, or saying, “make it so.”
But, it did happen. Women were integrated seamlessly into the military. And the military did what the US military always does, what we were designed to do, what we are sworn to do – we followed the orders of the civilian leadership and in the end we did make it so.
We lost people along the way, those who could not, or would not, change.
But, we gained people too. Good people. Many of them were women.
And the United State military became better for it, much better, more professional, more honorable, more capable, more diverse, more innovative, more flexible, more intelligent, more efficient. This result is unsurprising when you realize that we’d been keeping half our population, half our talent, half our ability, and half our viewpoints away, out of sight, out of mind. Stupid. Obviously. In retrospect. And nowadays, military folks look at you funny if you ask them whether or not women should serve on the front lines (well, most of them anyway). Change in large systems is hard and often fraught with peril, but without it you get stagnation. The military is a conservative entity by nature, by design, but it does change – even if sometimes that change is forced by direction. The Commandant of the Marine Corps said it best, to paraphrase: If you ask me my opinion, I don’t want DADT changed, but if you do change it then by God the Marines will lead the way. And they will too, just as the Marines have always done, you watch and see if they don’t – one thing about Marines, they give their word, they damned well keep it or die trying.
You know, it’s funny, I often hear the veterans of my generation, and the ones that came before us, disparage the young men and women who serve today. It’s good natured, mostly. I guess it’s a right of passage, each generation considers itself better than the ones that come after, their trials are always harder, their triumphs always greater, their failures forgotten, their leaders better (or worse, depending on the nature of the story), and so on. The kids nowadays just can’t understand what it was like back then, they’re soft, we had it hard not like it is now with your iPods and tongue rings and flush toilets. I am, of course, as guilty of this viewpoint as any old vet, but, I’m still submerged in the military, and the “kids” who wear the uniform today – and, Goddamn if they don’t look younger every day – they are every bit as good, better in fact, than we ever were. They are smart and proud and gung-ho. We’ve been fighting two wars for nearly a decade now, hard wars, tough, brutal, against a vicious and tenacious enemy, and yet this generation still volunteers to go, to put their lives on the line, over and over and over again, every single day.
These men and women, the ones who wear the uniform today, are not like we were, just as we were not like our fathers, and our fathers were not like our grandfathers. The military of today is a new generation. Their world is not ours. Their war is not ours. The challenges they face out there in the dark and dangerous corners of the world are not the ones I faced, or my dad faced, or my grandfather. Or John McCain. The men and women who serve today know what matters, they’re not kids, they’ve been to war – some a half dozen times now – and they know what matters to them.
In the last two weeks I’ve heard the DADT repeal come up in conversation exactly zero times.
Yes that’s correct. Zero.
And I’ve been listening for it.
The vast majority of the military simply doesn’t care.
They care about equipment that works, and intelligence and information that is accurate and reliable, and commanders who won’t waste their lives, and decent pay and benefits, and a schedule that gives them some time with their families between combat deployments, and a Veteran’s Administration that is funded and facilities that are maintained to reasonable levels, and a nation that remembers their sacrifice. They care that the men and women who guard their flank when the bullets start flying can be trusted and they just don’t care who those people might be sleeping with.
Most of them simply don’t give a flaming bag of shit whether gays are allowed to serve openly or not.
There are issues that will have to be solved. There are. Just as there were when women and minorities were integrated into the services. Sensitive issues, the issues of housing and showers and privacy and relationships (both sexual and platonic and perceived) and benefits and who, exactly, is a military dependent. Regulations will have to be changed, military law has to be changed. Example: the UCMJ defines sodomy to such a degree that most heterosexuals would have to be prosecuted if military law was applied as written. There is a significant number of Sailors and Marines who would have to spend time in the brig after every liberty port if the Adultery regulations were actually enforced as written. Military Law is outdated and long overdue for change, and it does have to be changed, it can’t be ignored – just as we couldn’t ignore the question of how to dispose of feminine hygiene products back in the day. Integrating gays into the military openly will take time, the military will have to change – and it will, because it always does, military culture only appears static, in reality it is constantly reinventing itself – but it’s not as easy as waving your arm and saying “make it so.” And it’s important to remember that. Some changes will have to mandated, to change military law will require Congressional and Presidential authorization. It will require training. Some changes will happen of their own accord, over time. It will require many, many little changes, not all of which are apparent.
People will have to change.
Especially the old guard. Especially the leadership.
Because, of course, there are those who do care. Who won’t serve with openly gay comrades. A few will get out, just as some I knew who left the service rather than serve at sea with, or for, women. Just as some did back when African Americans were integrated into the military as equals. That’s their choice. Go and good riddance. The world has changed, the military is changing, change with it or be left behind. Because if you stay, if you choose to wear the uniform, then you are sworn to uphold the orders of the President and the officers appointed over you, whether you agree with those changes or not. Period and no exceptions. You held up your right hand and swore an oath. Either your word is good, or it’s not, there is no middle ground.
So help you God.
Oddly though, it’s those who hold God above all things that are having the most trouble with this change.
I am, of course, talking about the Chaplain Corps. A majority of which have voiced their opposition to openly gay troops. Like my shipmate all those years ago who dogmatically maintained that God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, many in the Chaplain Corps say that they cannot live up to their oath. These Chaplains, these Christians, say that they cannot minister to those who wear the uniform and serve their country and have sworn to give up their lives, if they are openly gay. These Chaplains, these so-called men of God, who lay claim to superior virtue and morality, have demanded the right to perform their duty on a case by case basis. They have demanded the right follow only the rules and regulations and orders they agree with (what if we give military surgeons the same discretion? Pull the thread on that and see where it takes you). They have demanded that others live a lie so that they don’t have to live up to their oaths, an oath sworn before their country, their service, and their God. In short, they protest because for them not to live a lie, others must – and they see nothing wrong with this.
I have a simple solution to this dilemma.
If you as a military chaplain, as a matter of conscience, cannot live up to your sworn oath, if you cannot put the orders of the President and the officers appointed over you ahead of the tenets of your religious conviction, if you cannot serve with and minister to both your straight and gay comrades without prejudice, without bigotry, without judgment, then you can get the fuck out.
It’s really just that simple.
Resign your commission and get out. Now. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass. You’re officers, either start acting like officers or take off the uniform.
However, should you choose to stay, well then you have two choices:
1) Speak up. Refuse to stay silent. Refuse to minister to gay Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen, or Guardsmen. Stand pat on principle. Do not allow the government or the military to dictate your beliefs, convictions, lifestyle, or relationships.
At which point you will be immediately separated from the service via Administrative Discharge. Goodbye and good luck.
2) You can keep silent and do the job you swore to do. We won’t ask you about your hypocrisy, and you don’t tell anybody.
We’ll call it Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
You think it’s such a good idea? You think it’s fair? You think it’s moral and just? You live with it.
Seventeen years from now, we’ll come back and see how it worked out for you.