Contents: The Sir! No Sir! blog is an information clearing house, drawing on a wide variety of sources, to track the unfolding history of the new GI Movement, and the wars that brought the movement to life.
Where applicable, parallels will be drawn between the new movement and the Vietnam era movement which was the focus of the film Sir! No Sir!
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This interview was originally published in Autostraddle, October 19, 2009
When Private Bethany Smith, now known as Skyler James, 21, was outed as a lesbian by her comrades, she expected her “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” discharge to follow shortly afterwards. It didn’t. Instead, James, who was 19 at the time, was told they’d “deal with the paperwork” following her next turn in Afghanistan. In the ensuing time, James endured so much harassment and persecution in the US Army that she went AWOL and fled for Canada, where she wants to stay and is seeking refugee status.
Autostraddle has also interviewed Lissa Young and Dan Choi about their experiences with DADT ending long military careers, but Skyler’s is a very different story.
Furthermore, Skyler is sick of her story being botched (we can’t imagine a headline like the CBC’s “Lesbian Deserter Appeals for Refugee Status” went in the scrapbook) (Also doesn’t that make it sound like she’s deserting the lesbians? Who would ever want to desert the lesbians?) and speaks to Natalie, candidly, about the reasons she left the army, seeking refugee status in Canada and her life now. Auto Straddle: Why did you join the army? Skyler James: Growing up in the United States I was made to believe that joining the army – or really any part of the military – was the best thing you could do, the best thing to do to make your parents and your country proud.
So, when I turned 18 – and with a lot of pressure from my parents – I joined the army. Auto Straddle: What was the army like for you? Was being gay a problem? Skyler James: I was thinking it would very much be a good guy/super hero role. And of course being in the army is much more complicated than that.
At first the whole being gay thing – and DADT– was OK. I just thought ‘OK, I will keep things under wraps and not be so gay.’ And then things changed.
After basic training, I was moved to my regular duty station in Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Apparently, I had been seen by some of my peers holding hands with another girl in the mall. Before this, I think people thought I was just ‘the weird girl with the short haircut.’ But now, there was all this hatred and skepticism.
Auto Straddle: What happened then? Skyler James: Well, at first, it was a lot of talk: ‘Oh, there is the lesbian…I saw her at the mall,’ and a lot of verbal taunting. And then, not even a week later, the physical abuse and threats began. Other soldiers – those who were supposed to have my back – would pick me up and shake me violently. And others – including sergeants – would just stand by and watch.
Then, I began being assigned to do work – physical labor – that would normally require 3 soldiers. And I started to get punished for things that one should not get punished for: I dyed my hair and I was punished. You can dye your hair in the military – just not an “unnatural” color… so I suppose no pink or green. But I dyed it blonde.
I began regularly receiving hate letters and death threats.
So, I thought ‘OK, I am not safe.’ I asked my immediate supervisor for a meeting with the first sergeant and was denied. Eventually, though, I spoke to the first sergeant and told him that I was gay and being mistreated because of it and wanted to be discharged under DADT.
He just shook his head and said, “We will take a look at this when we get back from deployment.”
So, I had to stay and deal with the daily harassment and the fear that, once deployed – most likely to Afghanistan – those who were meant to be on my side would be the ones who killed me. Auto Straddle: So, basically, the army – in a cruelly ironic turn of events – disobeyed its own discriminatory policy in order to retain as many people as possible for war? Skyler James: Yes. Exactly.
Auto Straddle: And what happened next? Skyler James: Well, the hate mail and threats continued.
Some of the worst things said included: ‘We are getting the keys to your room… and we are going to beat you to death while you sleep.’ And ‘If you don’t go back into the closet and stop being who you are, we are going to kill you.’
That last letter I received, the one that said ‘We are going to get keys from the supplies sergeant’s office, come into your room while you are sleeping and murder you’ was the turning point for me. I was like ‘I am not safe here… I cannot stay… if I go to war with these people, they are going to shoot me.’ Auto Straddle: And then you left? You went AWOL? Skyler James: Yes, another solider and I – he was a friend of mine – decided to leave the base together and flee to Canada. We grabbed the help numbers we knew we would need upon arriving in Canada, hopped in his pickup truck and left. Auto Straddle: Was there not security stopping you? Skyler James: There is security coming into the base…. but not really leaving the base. We were just able to leave. Auto Straddle: How did you get across the border? Skyler James: Neither one of us had a passport or a birth certification. But immigration at the border in Windsor just asked us for our military IDs. We showed them. They then asked “Where are you going and what are you doing here?” and we told them they we were going to visit friends in Toronto. This is where the War Resisters Support Campaign (WRSC) was based.
Then a series of unfortunate events happened: we were robbed while in Toronto; we headed to Kingston, where we pawned off some items for money…and then tried to make it to Cornwall. We were about 12 km from Cornwall when we ran out of gas. Here we called the War Resisters Support Campaign. Auto Straddle: And then? Skyler James: Joel Harden – from the Ottawa chapter of the WRSC – came and helped us; he listened to us and heard our stories. He brought us to Ottawa.
The WRSC helped us fill out paperwork as refugee claimants seeking refugee protection. Once the paperwork was in place, I secured a job. I have always worked, always been a law-abiding citizen. At the moment, I am working at a call center. Auto Straddle: How have people reacted to you and your story? Skyler James: Most people have been incredibly kind and supportive; they have told me that I am courageous and wish me the best. The negative comments I hear are primarily from the internet. It’s the anonymity, I think. I wish people would not comment unless they know the whole story. Auto Straddle: What consequences do you face/do you fear if you deported back to the US? Skyler James: Well, my life is very much here now; I have great friends, I am integrated into the community, I volunteer. It would be awful to be pulled from all of this.
And then, I am super scared of everything if I have to go back: seeing the same people who caused me physical and emotional pain, being court-martialed by the same people who caused me to fear my life. These things are incredibly troubling. There are two likely outcomes: I could be sent to a military prison or I could be sent back to Fort Campbell to finish my time.
Honestly, the latter scares me the most. If I were sent back there, I would fear for my life – I would fear that I would be murdered. Fort Campbell is the most infamous army base in the US for gay bashing.
Of course I will be court-martialed for being AWOL, as anyone would be. But, I think because of the time period in which I left (a time of war) and, above all, because of who I am – a lesbian – I will be punished more harshly. I fear that I will face physical abuse, persecution and/or excessive/unwarranted punishment because of my sexual orientation. Auto Straddle: Where are you now in terms of your immigration process? Skyler James: In Nov 2008, the Immigration Review Board (IRB) denied my claim that if I were deported back to the US, I would face persecution on the basis of my sexual orientation. They claimed that there was not enough evidence. Well, I feel for cases like this, there never is “enough evidence.”
ven through all of this, I like my country and I love my state, Texas.
At the moment, we just finished a judicial review. My case is being examined by another federal court judge; this judge is going to decide whether my case should be reviewed again by the IRB. If he says yes, then my case will go back to the IRB, and a different member will review it. If he says no, the deportation process effectively begins. A pre-removal risk assessment will be done, which attempts to assess the risk I face of persecution if I return to the US.
My lawyer and I are submitting a humanitarian and compassionate considerations application, along with my application for permanent residence in Canada. So, friends and people I volunteer with are writing letters about why I should be allowed to stay, what an asset I am to the community and so on. Hopefully this will help my application. Auto Straddle: What advice would you give a gay individual looking to join the army? Skyler James: Don’t join! Seriously.
If you are gay and you’re already in the military, keep your head down, don’t do anything crazy. Try as hard as possible to not let your peers find out.
If your peers do know, and they are treating you poorly – seek help. Unfortunately, the response you receive often depends on what your superiors are like. Auto Straddle: Would you have done anything differently? Skyler James: How I answer this question really depends on my mood: there is a part of me that wishes that I had never joined the army; but then, there is another part of me that thinks the reason I am who I am today is precisely because I joined. Auto Straddle: What would you say to people that question your patriotism? Skyler James: Even through all of this, I like my country and I love my state, Texas. I used to be able to say I would do anything for my country, but after everything that has happened and how it has been dealt with, after learning what I learned about the army and how it is run… I don’t think I would die for my country, although I would do almost anything else. Auto Straddle: Is there anything else you would like to add? Skyler James: Riese rocks!
This book review, by Jon Letman, was distributed by the Inter Press Service News Agency, August 17, 2009
KAUAI, Hawaii, Aug 17 (IPS) - Six months into Barack Obama's presidency, the U.S. public's display of antiwar sentiment has faded to barely a whisper.
Despite Obama's vow to withdraw all combat forces from Iraq before September 2011, he plans to leave up to 50,000 troops in "training and advisory" roles. Meanwhile, nearly 130,000 troops remain in that country and more than 50,000 U.S. soldiers occupy Afghanistan, with up to an additional 18,000 approved for deployment this year.
So where is the resistance?
In independent journalist Dahr Jamail's "The Will to Resist: Soldiers who refuse to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan" (Haymarket Books), Jamail profiles what may ultimately prove to be the United States' most effective anti-war movement: the soldiers themselves.
During the early years of the Iraq war, Jamail traveled to Iraq alone and reported as an unembedded freelance journalist. Over four visits, Jamail documented the war's effects on Iraqi civilians in "Beyond the Green Zone" (2007).
Although he is a fierce critic of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of the U.S. mainstream media which he says served as a "cheerleader" for war, Jamail admits he was raised to admire the military. However, after covering the war from Iraq between 2003 and 2005, Jamail was enraged by what he calls "the heedless and deliberate devastation [he] saw [the U.S. military] wreak upon the people of Iraq."
Back in the U.S., traveling the country speaking out against the war, Jamail met scores of soldiers who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan and found that he shared with them a "familiar anguish" which drove him to further explore their motivations as soldiers. In doing so he opens the door to a growing subculture of internal dissent that is increasingly bubbling up and spilling over the edge of an otherwise ultra-disciplined, highly-controlled military society.
"The soldiers I spoke with while working on this book are some of the most ardent anti-war activists I have ever met," Jamail told IPS. "Having experienced the war firsthand, this should not come as a surprise."
In "The Will to Resist", Jamail profiles individual acts of resistance that he envisions as the possible seeds of a broader anti-war movement. The book is filled with stories of soldiers who refuse missions deemed "suicidal", go AWOL, flee abroad, refuse to carry a loaded weapon, even arranging to be shot in the leg - and those who in a final act of desperation commit suicide.
Soldiers who refuse to deploy or follow orders risk court-martial, prison time, dishonourable discharge and loss of veteran's medical benefits, yet an increasing number of active duty soldiers and veterans are willing to do so.
Rather than accept a mission almost certain to bring death, some troops simply refuse to follow orders. Jamail describes soldiers in Iraq on "search and avoid" missions who grew adept at giving the appearance of going out on patrol when, in fact, they were lying low, catching up on sleep and trying to avoid being killed.
Jamail quotes one Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan as saying, "Dissent starts as simple as saying 'this is bullshit. Why am I risking my life?'"
Soldiers tell Jamail that incidents of refusing orders are unremarkable and "pretty widespread," to which he responds, "It is also understandable why the military does not want more soldiers or the public to know about them."
"Army Specialist Victor Agosto, who served a year in Iraq, has recently publicly refused orders to deploy to Afghanistan," Jamail told IPS, "and the Army, due to the threat of more soldiers and the broader public learning of this, backed away from giving Agosto the harshest court-martial possible, to one of the lightest."
Jamail also dedicates two chapters to soldiers who stand up to systemic misogyny and homophobia in the military. Extensive interviews with female soldiers detail a pervasive culture of institutionalised "command rape," harassment, abuse and assault which, in a number of high-profile cases (and many more unknown) end in ostracism, coercion, demotion, suicide and murder.
Citing studies from professional medical journals that offer a grim assessment of sexual intimidation and abuse within the U.S. military, Jamail writes, "According to the group Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, one in six women in the United States will be a victim of sexual assault in her lifetime. In the military, at least two in five will. In either case, at least 60 percent of the cases go unreported."
As Jamail recounts horrific cases of violence toward women in the military, he notes the irony of frequent claims that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are "liberating" women of those Muslim countries.
Like female soldiers, gay and lesbian service men and women are targeted for harassment and abuse. Jamail meets soldiers who, under the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy, must conceal their true identity, falsely posing as straight while battling internal conflicts about their own roles in the military.
In the blunt language of the soldiers, Jamail describes the military experience as a process of dehumanisation. "The primary objective appeared to be to mistreat and dehumanise your guys [fellow soldiers]," one Marine says. "I could not do it, not to my men and not to those people. I like the Iraqis, I like the Afghanis. Why were we treating them like shit?...That is when I really started questioning what the hell was going on."
For many soldiers however, the pain of war is simply too much to bear and so they choose their own final discharge: suicide. In an emotionally exhausting chapter, Jamail cites statistics from the Army Suicide Event Report which states active duty military suicides have risen to their highest rates since the Army started tracking self-inflicted deaths in 1980, and the numbers are growing.
Documenting the phenomenon of "suicide by cop," Jamail quotes from a Post Traumatic Distress Syndrome (PTSD)-wracked veteran's pre-"suicide" internet article in which he wrote, "…We come home from war trying to put our lives back together but some cannot stand the memories and decide that death is better. We kill ourselves because we are so haunted by seeing children killed and whole families wiped out."
Contemplating the long-term implications of the more than 1.8 million military personnel who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Jamail points out that the United States, for many years to come, will be faced with caring for tens of thousands of veterans whose lives are permanently marred by grave physical and traumatic brain injuries, psychological scars, PTSD, and a host of associated problems ranging from divorce and substance abuse to domestic violence, homelessness and run-ins with the law.
Other soldiers manage to cope somehow and, perhaps in a sense, recover. Following their discharge, some veterans profiled by Jamail seek to make peace with themselves by educating others about the realities they experienced in war.
The most successful and constructive of military efforts to resist war are made by those who turn their experiences into teaching tools and therapeutic exercises like music, video, theater, painting, books, blogs, photographic and art exhibitions, performance art and even making paper out of old military uniforms.
In a chapter titled 'Cyber Resistance,' Jamail contends the Internet "is probably the first time that we have available to us an inexpensive and extremely inclusive means to communicate and thereby advocate sustained resistance to unjust military action, at an international scale without losing any gestation time."
Websites like YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, Blogspot and countless alternative news sources have given soldiers and veterans both a voice and the means to connect with those Jamail calls "fence-sitters, members of the silent majority and well-intentioned but resource-less individuals to participate in the promise of a historical transformation."
"While we don't have an organised GI resistance movement today that is anywhere close to that which helped end the Vietnam war," Jamail said, "the seeds for one are there, and they are continuing to sprout amidst a soil that is becoming all the more fertile by the escalation of troops in Afghanistan, the lack of withdrawal in Iraq, and an increasingly over-stretched military."
This article, by Forrrest Wilder, was published by the Texas Observer, August 17 2009.
In March, Michael Kern, 22, returned to Fort Hood after a year and a day in Iraq.
Shaken by his experience and disgusted with the war, Kern, a native of Riverside, Calif., tried to readjust by getting as hammered as possible. “Put it this way: For the first month, I was drunk at work, I was drunk 24/7.”
In Iraq the violence had been fast and furious. “We were going through all sorts of bad shit: mortars, IEDs, indirect fire. Anything you can think of we experienced the first day.”
On his second mission, Kern drew the short straw to drive the lead vehicle—a “mine resistant ambush protected” vehicle—in a convoy looking for a weapons cache near Baghdad. An IED exploded next to his vehicle, damaging his door. The platoon pulled back to base. The next day, April 7, on an identical mission, insurgents came after his unit with AK-47s, machine guns and IEDs. During the nine-hour firefight, a sniper killed Kern’s buddy, Sgt. Richard A. Vaughn. Two others, including Kern’s lieutenant, were seriously injured.
Kern tells me his story over two days in July at Under the Hood Café, a new GI coffeehouse and soldier-outreach center that opened in February. Since mid-May, when a drunken Kern first dropped in, Under the Hood has become his second home. While awaiting a medical discharge for PTSD and traumatic brain injury, he’s here almost every day, working out what happened to him in Iraq, planning anti-war events and helping other soldiers come to terms with their combat experiences. The coffeehouse provides a support network, friends who’ve helped him quit drinking, people he can call on day or night, and provides what Kern appreciated most about the military: a sense of camaraderie.
“If it wasn’t for this place, it’s sad to say, I feel like I would be dead. I feel like I would have killed myself,” Kern says.
Under the Hood is a rifle shot from the east gates of Fort Hood in a grim commercial zone of tattoo parlors, pawnshops, car lots, payday lenders, bars, strip clubs, and a place advertising “gold grillz” for teeth—establishments eager to drain young soldiers of their earnings. In this garrison town, the café has become a gathering place for dissident GIs, peace activists, veterans and active-duty soldiers who need help.
Inside, the walls are decorated with peace propaganda, including a map of the world pinpointing U.S. military interventions and a poster that reads, “You Can’t Be All that You Can Be if You’re Dead.” A bookcase is stocked with anti-war literature. For entertainment, there’s a dartboard, a foosball table and a big-screen TV with PlayStation. No alcohol is allowed, but there’s no shortage of cigarette smoke.
I came here to suss out efforts to build an anti-war movement within the Army. Fort Hood, the largest military installation in the country, has produced a smattering of war resisters in recent years. I met some of them at the coffeehouse, including Victor Agosto, an Iraq War veteran who refuses to deploy to Afghanistan, and Casey Porter, a mechanic who did two tours in Iraq. Porter, preparing to attend film school in Florida, recorded local life in Iraq, posting interviews with military personnel, battle footage and unvarnished street scenes.
Over the past four years, I’ve come into contact with scores of military personnel through my involvement with the Austin GI Rights Hotline, a group of volunteers trained to counsel service members about their rights.
Once a week, I sit on my couch and talk on the phone to soldiers, Marines and airmen who call with a dizzying array of issues, from the mundane to the impossibly complex. Many are stationed at Fort Hood. We get AWOL cases, people with untreated PTSD, 18-year-old enlistees who’ve found out their recruiter lied to them, middle-aged soldiers who’ve been stop-lossed, moms and dads calling on behalf of their kids, gay officers who’ve been outed—you name it. Some have made poor decisions; others are victims of a sometimes capricious, even cruel military system.
I got into it through my girlfriend. Katherine was in the news some years ago for being the first female conscientious objector to emerge from the war in Afghanistan. The military refused to recognize her as a conscientious objector, and after a long and painful process she was court-martialed and sentenced to 120 days in the brig. She ate lunch every day with Lynndie England, the young West Virginia woman best known for holding the leash in the infamous Abu Ghraib photos.
Joeie Michaels, Michael Kern’s roommate and an Under the Hood regular, used to dance at Babes, a Killeen strip club popular with GIs. Performing there, she made sure the troops left with a flier for the coffeehouse.
Under the Hood’s signal event was a Memorial Day peace march in the streets of Killeen, the city’s first since Vietnam. The Killeen newspaper reported about 70 participants. Cindy Thomas, the military spouse who manages the coffeehouse and plays den mother to the young, often-raucous soldiers, estimates about 10 to 15 were locals, including veterans and active-duty soldiers.
“It’s like a mother with a child,” Thomas says. “It’s unconditional love, and we help them any way we can.”
The building housing Under the Hood’s local antecedent, the Killeen coffeehouse Oleo Strut, is a few blocks away; it now houses an office complex. The Oleo Strut had a four-year run from 1968 to 1972, according to a history on Under the Hood’s Web site. Run by civilians and veterans, the Oleo Strut plugged Fort Hood soldiers into the Vietnam anti-war movement and spread their ideas in the barracks. An underground newspaper circulated from the coffeehouse, and the crowd there organized demonstrations and teach-ins. Musicians passed through, purportedly including a young Stevie Ray Vaughan.
“The tinder was very dry,” says Tom Cleaver, an Oleo Strut alum, Vietnam veteran and Hollywood screenwriter who helped raise money to start Under the Hood. “They ended up in ’69 and ’70 having big demonstrations there, a thousand guys marching in Killeen against the war.”
Fort Hood at that time was a holding station for soldiers returning from Vietnam with less than six months left on their enlistments. Before being discharged, many were deployed to suppress domestic riots and protests, including those at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
“Here they come back to America, and what does the Army want them to do?” Cleaver asks. “Fight a war in America. That radicalized a lot of guys. They came back with bad feelings about the war, and now they were supposed to go defend the war.”
There’s no draft now, nor is there a broader social counterculture, to tap into. Given that, Thomas says, one of Under the Hood’s primary functions is giving soldiers a place to speak openly.
“The military, they don’t want you to think for yourself,” Thomas says. “They don’t want you to be informed; they don’t want you to know that you have support because they function by fear and intimidation over these soldiers. So when you have a space where you can talk freely and find out what your rights are, you have that support, you have that kindness. It is a threat to them.”
One coffeehouse regular, Spc. Ben Fugate, told me that after his commander spotted his name in a Killeen Daily Herald article about the Memorial Day peace march, his unit was lectured for two hours on the dangers of protesting.
Fugate, who describes himself as “very conservative,” had been quoted in the paper saying, “I lost three buddies in my platoon in Iraq, and for what? Why lose more when we don’t have to?”
Kern, seated on a couch in a cozy back room at Under the Hood, explains how he became a coffeehouse fixture. It’s a Thursday in July, and he’s wearing a T-shirt that asks, “Got Rights?” He’s pale and swallowing tranquilizers to suppress panic attacks.
“I’m fucked up,” he says. “I know it.” Later, he says, “You know how they say a teenage boy thinks about sex every eight seconds. Every eight seconds I think about Iraq.”
Kern, a tanker, says his unit averaged about two and a half missions per day.
At first, Kern says, he was gung ho: “I was an excellent soldier. I took joy out of killing people in Iraq. It was such an adrenaline rush. I craved it.”
Over time, bravado faded into depression, guilt and a strong feeling that the war was wrong. When Kern deployed to Iraq he took a small handheld digital video camera and a laptop with editing software. He fixed the camera to his vehicle’s turret and captured hours of patrol footage.
Some of that raw video has been distilled to a 10-minute film called Fire Mission that’s available online.
In the film’s last minutes, Spc. Steven Pesicka, a soldier in Kern’s unit, narrates what he calls a “mortar mission for shock and awe” near an Iraqi village. The first mortar lands near a house, and the forward observer calls for the next one to be targeted 200 meters farther from the village. The mortar team thought that was too far away, Pesicka says. The film shows the second mortar hitting the town. “Oh fuck,” the forward observer is heard to say. “They did not drop 200 [meters], over. They hit the town.”
Minutes after the explosion, the soldier describes dead bodies being loaded into the back of trucks.
Such experiences led Kern to a radical form of empathy.
“If you just take a step back and you think, I mean, I’d be doing the same thing if Iraqis were in the United States,” Kern, dressed in battle fatigues, says in Fire Mission. “I’d be the dude trying to plant a bomb under the road. I’d be trying to kill them. Oh, hell yeah, get the fuck out of my country.”
Beginning in May or June, Kern started having nightmares, sometimes while he was awake. On several occasions he hallucinated an Iraqi child with half his skull missing, as real to him as the desert heat. His psychiatrist says the child might represent guilt, but all Kern knows is that it scared the shit out of him. In January, on his birthday, while his unit was on patrol, he told a commander—in confidence—that he was going to see a mental health specialist. The doctor prescribed Zoloft and sent him on his way. Back with his platoon, Kern discovered that the commander had ratted him out to his platoon sergeant.
“I was called out in front of the entire platoon, was made an example of, saying why are you going to mental health. This isn’t a war. This isn’t bad.” The next day, on a mission, Kern talked openly of suicide. “Still to this day, my buddy doesn’t know he talked me down, but I really wanted to kill myself on that mission. I had three loaded weapons sitting right next to me. I could have done it real easy.”
Back home, Kern avoided his demons, drowning them in drink. Thomas and Michaels encouraged Kern to open up.
“They’d be like, ‘How was Iraq?’ I’d say ‘Oh, it was just Iraq.’ I kept brushing it aside and stuff. They kept telling me, ‘You’re gonna break, you’re gonna break. You need to get help.’ ” Kern relented.
Michaels found a psychiatrist in Austin whom Kern has been seeing twice a week for free. In May he visited Fort Hood’s mental health services office, but was told he’d have to wait six weeks to see a doctor.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi child had followed Kern back to Texas. On the first of June, Kern was in the bathroom at Under the Hood when the child made an appearance. Afterward, Thomas and Michaels found Kern sitting outside under a tree. “The look on his face was just empty. His eyes were hollow,” Thomas says. Kern entered the 12-bed psychiatric ward at Fort Hood’s military hospital. He spent the next week there, emerging with a diagnosis of PTSD and traumatic brain injury. Doctors put him on five medications, including tranquilizers, antidepressants and antipsychotics, which he carries in a small orange pillbox.
A week after being released, Kern started a blog, “Expendable Soldier.” In his first post he wrote, “I still hate myself and everything I do. No matter what I am doing any day of the week I some how am still reminded of the things I did while I was in Iraq, and sometimes it gets so bad that I believe I am still in Iraq. ... Sometimes I wish I never came back.”
Still, Kern reports for duty at the coffeehouse every day. He’s working on restarting an Iraq Veterans Against the War chapter in Killeen and talking to other soldiers about the coffeehouse. Does he feel like he’s become part of an anti-war movement? “I am part of an anti-war movement,” he says. “There’s no ‘feeling’ about it.”
This article, by Jade Ortego, was published in the Killeen Daily Herald, June 11, 2009
The Supreme Court rejected an appeal Monday of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which prohibits gay, lesbian or bisexual active-duty military personnel from disclosing their orientation at the risk of being dismissed.
The appeal was from former Army Capt. James Pietrangelo II, who was in the Vermont National Guard when he was discharged in 2004. The Supreme Court made no comment when denying a review of the policy.
"Don't ask, don't tell" was introduced in 1993 by President Bill Clinton's administration as a compromise to change a previous policy that screened and prevented gay or lesbian service members from joining or discharged them.
The current policy theoretically prevents superiors from investigating a service member's orientation in the absence of disallowed behaviors, including obvious homosexual conduct, statements of orientation or marriage. "The Army continues to abide by current law concerning homosexual conduct in military service. A person's sexual orientation is considered a personal and private matter and is not a bar to entry or continued service unless manifested by homosexual conduct," said Lt. Col. George Wright, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon.
President Barack Obama indicated that he would support repealing the law, but he has made no move to do so.
A gay soldier stationed at Fort Hood, who asked to be referred to under the pseudonym "Langston" to prevent himself and his partner, also a soldier, from penalization, said the policy should be repealed. He said the notion of secrecy for the sake of "unit cohesion" is paradoxical.
"Can I defend the life of a person if I don't know who they are? How much do I trust them if I can't tell them who I am? ? I think you want to know the person that you're fighting beside and you want them to know you because the only thing soldiers really have is other soldiers."
Langston said that most of his battalion knows he is gay. Once people started asking him, the first person he told about his orientation was his sergeant major. He said he believes he hasn't been discharged because he is well-liked and a good soldier.
However, Langston said he's been harassed and threatened over his sexuality.
"Someone has banged on my door and yelled, 'Bring the faggot out here, I'll take care of him right now.'" He said, however, that that wasn't necessarily a bad experience.
"You can never know freedom until you have to fight for it. It's just like being deployed." Langston said he believes that the nature of the policy encourages bigotry in the ranks because it stigmatizes homosexuality. He said that the Army loses assets in the people they discharge.
"You're removing people who save other people's lives, people who make an impact: medics, cooks, engineers, infantrymen, everyone. There's no discrimination among genetics," he said. "Such a small percentage serves in the armed forces at all. Should we further decrease that number by getting rid of just because of their lifestyle?"
"I hold the Army values pretty high. I think that they're really great standards of living, but part of that personal integrity and honor is the ability to say yes, I am who I am," Langston said.
The "don't ask" part of the policy is not enforced, Langston said, because he is often questioned about his sexuality. He was asked to sign a waiver in 2005 stating that he had never had even a bisexual inclination. He signed it, he said, because he would lie to serve his country.
"I'll put my life on the line for anyone in the Army, be they a bigot or not," Langston said. "That's freedom."