Here’s to ALL Our Veterans

On this day when we honor veterans for their service to the constitution and to our republic, let’s remember to openly and unapologetically include Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered veterans as well.

It’s hard, especially when you’re a trained warrior, not to just come out firing indiscriminately from the hip.  It’s even harder when you’ve been attacked so viciously so often and for so long.  But with the skills to kill I learned in the Marine Corps, I was also was trained to temper the use of force with a measure of good judgment. Those who oppose us in our desire to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and otherwise establish equal justice for LGBT Americans, make of themselves easy targets by most of what they say.  These days I fight with tools.  But I still fight. Those who have placed themselves on the side of bigotry and discrimination have placed themselves on the wrong side of history.  The words carved into the marble walls in Washington DC are not so much something to look back on as they are ideals that we should continually march toward.  And we will march.  Should I be struck down before we get there, another will close ranks and step into my place.  And if he or she should be struck down, another will take her place.  We will not quit.  Ever. This nation is better than bigotry.  Even now, as in times past, the subtle and not-so-subtle opponents of “liberty and justice for all” will wrap themselves in the flag. But when the chorus begins to sing and “The Star Spangled Banner” rings across the hills, a mighty wind of Truth will blow and Old Glory will be unfurled and they will be exposed for exactly what they are. And those who have exercised the power given them by the people to do such harm to millions of our citizens will have done it to the shame of their descendents.  But I’m not writing today to talk about our enemies.  I want to honor our heroes.

Today I’d like to offer my humble gratitude to my fellow veterans, those who are still living and those who have passed on.  I write in a spirit of celebration, albeit solemn, with the rest of you who believe that this is still the land of the free because of the brave.

I have had the great honor of knowing many veterans in my life.  Even before I become on myself.   The first was my grandfather, Shelton Williamson.  He fought the Nazis in The Battle of the North Atlantic.  (My family has a proud history of contempt for Fascism.)  My grandfather didn’t speak much about his time at war, only that he was proud of his service.  I asked him as many questions as he would answer.  He’d cock his head to present his “good ear.”  He’d lost the hearing in the other when a German shell exploded close to the ship he served aboard while he was standing on deck. He was a great man.  He loved me unconditionally exactly as I was. I’m so grateful that I got to know my grandfather. So many grandchildren of WWII veterans were not as lucky.

Then there is my oldest living friend, Al Kramer, 95, also a WWII sailor- gay as a park full of balloons.  In the great battles of the Pacific in often-horrible circumstances with limited resources, Al as a young Navy Corpsman put Marines back together as best he could.  Al is so proud to have been part of the United States Navy. Marines and Navy Corpsmen have a special bond.  Ask either if you ever doubt it.  We spent hours, his sharing his stories with me.  I’ll never forget his telling me about the saddest moment of his military career.  As their ship returned to harbor in California, the man at end of the gang-plank stood with a clip board and was saying, “You sailors over here, you niggers over there.”  You see, those black servicemen were sailors.  They’d served bravely alongside the other sailors through great peril and, as Al put it, “They were returning home to a nation that treated them like they weren’t even American.  Me too,” he said, “but at least I could try to hide what made me different.”  I used to think of that as an asset, being able to “hide my difference,” Now I’m not so sure it’s not a liability.

When I deployed to Iraq, oddly one of my deepest concerns was for a good friend I was leaving behind in the States.  I had befriended a Korean War veteran, a Marine and also gay who had fought at Chosin Reservoir.  He was 74 at the time of my deployment.  At “Frozen Chosin” as it is called, the Marines fought their way out when they were outnumbered by the Chinese 10 to 1 in temperatures 40 degrees below zero and wind up to 50 mph. I have never met anyone so proud to be a Marine as Eric was.  Sergeant Eric Cavanaugh had asked my parents for their blessing for him to call me grandson as he had no blood family left and we had come to love each other like family.  Of course they said yes.   I have a tattoo on the underside of my left arm that reads “brother’s keeper.”  When I got the tattoo, my Marine buddies went with me, sort of a ritual.  We took Eric with us.  He was part of our “band of brothers” too after all, even if across a generation.  He was in a wheelchair and the small tattoo parlor was upstairs.  There was no elevator.  We hadn’t thought of that.  My buddies just looked at each other, shrugged, and without any verbal communication about what had to be done, they placed themselves on the four corners of his wheelchair and lifted him up the stairs.

When I came home from Iraq, it became apparent that my concerns about Eric had been justified.  He had “fallen among robbers and thieves” as they say and also had gotten very sick with Parkinson’s Disease.  He could no longer live on his own.  He came to live with me for the last year of his life, until, like the patriot he was, he died on the 4th of July, 2005.   My Marine brothers who had served with me in Iraq, came to my side once again and performed full military honors at Eric’s funeral.  Many times I had been part of those funeral details as I volunteered to blow Taps on my trumpet for veterans’ during my time in the Corps.  I’d often heard those words when the tri-folded American flag was presented to the next of kin: “On behalf of the President of the Untied States, The Commandant of the Marine Corps and the people of a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s service to country and corps.”  I never thought I would be the one receiving the flag.  But when it came time to present it at Eric’s funeral, my Marines marched up to me, because they knew.  Love makes a family.

Those same Marines, along with soldiers, sailors and airmen were there on my wedding day, in dress uniforms.  The Marines along with a Cavalry Soldier performed the traditional “arch of swords.”  For those of you not familiar with the tradition, the newly married couple leaves the altar underneath the raised swords of the servicemen.  The Marines have a tradition that the last man on what is usually the bride’s side, when she passes, pops her on the rear end with his sword and shouts, “Welcome aboard!”  I wondered.  But there was no way I was going to ask.  Sure enough, when Adam got to the end of the line, Eric Estenzo, the man who saved my life in Iraq, popped my new husband on the ass and shouted “Welcome aboard!”  Not that it matters, but Eric, like all my Marine buddies, is straight.  Eric is one of my two closest friends in the Marine Corps.  The other is Christopher Bliss.  I spent hours in Iraq listening to how much he loved the girl he wanted to marry.  He did marry her when we got back.  It was the first Mormon wedding I’d ever been to.  I’m pretty sure ours was the first gay wedding he’d ever been to.  I could call him anytime day or night and he’d do anything he could to help me in any way.  He also knows that that is a two-way arrangement.  He represents the very best the LDS faith has to offer.

Yesterday was the Marine Corps’ 235th birthday and as it happens every year, birthday greetings were sent around among the Marines.  I hear from men and women all over the United States and abroad.  We exchange a few words and lament that we mostly don’t keep in touch the way we always swore we would.  But the bond is still there.  Now don’t take what I’m about to say the wrong way.  The persecution of gay people in this country, to include Don’t Ask, Don’t tell is unequivocally wrong and we who fight against aren’t about to drop pack and cool our heels.  But in some ways, in the mean time, it really doesn’t matter what Senator McCaine and his ilk do to us.  They can never, ever take away what my Marines have given me in the way of their trusting me and by their commitment to our common purpose, however that is expressed.  And I have always been truthful with them about who I am.

When I got back from Iraq, I wrote a play based on my war journals.  When I performed it here in Salt Lake, after a performance one night, a young woman stayed behind to say hello.  She was the picture of fit, military good looks, a squared away recruiting poster in all respects.  She too was an Iraq vet. I play Taps at the end of the play and she was still a little stunned and I could see the tear stains on her face.  On another occasion I was honored to share a table with her at a fundraising dinner.  That night she got to talk more about how much hearing my story meant to her.  We shared stories about how psychologically torturous serving under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell can be, to have to speak of honor and honesty while being ordered to lie.  We shared the painful stories of growing up in oppressive religious communities that did not understand or accept our sexuality.  She talked of what the song Taps means to her and how impacted by it she had been when she saw my play.  Ironically and tragically, I ended up playing Taps at her funeral.  She’s one of the ones who didn’t make it.  I can’t even call her name because, even in death, her family insists she was not gay and her death was not suicide.  The way I came to play Taps for her was just too “happenstance” to be anything other than Divine Intervention.  They may have stood and denied who she was over her lifeless body, but in the end she got her 6’5” queer Marine bugler.   Good for you Sister.

A year ago today I was invited to speak in the rotunda of the Utah State Capitol Building as part of ceremony to honor veterans. That was not the first time I’d been given the microphone in that building.  During the 2009 legislative session, I spoke on behalf of Senator McCoy’s bill, part of the Common Ground Initiative.  After I pleaded with the committee to do the right thing, the Chair of that committee, Senator Chris Butters grinned at me like an old cat, thanked me for my service, and relegated me back to second-class citizenship.  You know what?  “Thank you for your service” means nothing to a veteran if it is to be followed by such blatant disrespect.  Keep your “thank you for your service” until you are ready to back it up.   If you want to thank me for my service, support the troops, all the troops, even after they become veterans.

So to all those Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered servicemembers who serve now and who have served since the Revolutionary War, who have given so much and in some cases given all, may I paraphrase those words so often spoken during Funeral Honors:  On behalf of an ungrateful nation, I am so, so sorry.  Thank you, thank you for your selfless service to our nation.  We will not rest until you are honored in the honest way that you deserve.  God Bless our Troops, our veterans and our great nation.  God bless us all without exception.

 

 


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