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Gay Veterans Gather To Honor Their Own
Military's Outsiders Commend the Fallen For Sacrifice, Service

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 12, 2008

It was a short ceremony, and not that many people came. Maybe 25, and one small white dog. People gathered around the grave. There was the American flag and the rainbow-colored gay movement flag. There was the singing of the national anthem and poetry and the remembrance of fallen soldiers and the playing of taps on a trumpet in the brisk winter air.

It was late afternoon yesterday, Veterans Day, and the gathering point was at the tombstone of former Air Force tech sergeant Leonard Matlovich. The November sky over Congressional Cemetery, a Capitol Hill landmark, was a clear pale blue. Matlovich became a gay icon in 1975 after he told his superiors he was gay and was booted out of the service as a result.

He died of complications from AIDS in 1988 but became in death an inspiration for what is one of the few Veterans Day memorial services, if not the only one, that specifically honor gay service members. "Don't ask, don't tell" is the military's official policy, and gays cannot openly serve in the armed forces.

A handful of gay veterans want to be buried near him. Here is the tombstone of F. Warren O'Reilly, 1921-2001, whose stone bears the epitaph "A Gay World War II Veteran." Next to him is Tom "Gator" Swann, born in 1958, and not dead yet, but whose tombstone reads: "Proud Gay Veteran."

Matlovich's reads: "A Gay Vietnam Veteran."

And: "When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one."

"I'm not aware of any other [services for gay soldiers], not even in San Francisco," said retired Navy Capt. Michael Rankin, who has overseen this annual service for the past five years. "It's to honor all the gay men and women who served in all of our nation's wars." Rankin, now living in Alexandria, served 22 years in the Navy, including combat in Vietnam, before retiring in 1996. His superiors never knew he was gay, he said.

He and other gay veterans, working with the Arlington Gay and Lesbian Alliance, put the service together at Congressional Cemetery in 2003 for the same reasons that Matlovich chose to be buried there: Because no military graveyard would allow it -- and to honor Matlovich's attempt to bring gay life into the national mainstream. When Matlovich died, one national television report summed up his decade in the spotlight this way: "He brought homosexuality into the open in a manner and volume not known before."

Matlovich, a recipient of the Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his combat service in Vietnam, spent five years fighting his discharge from the Air Force. He was on the cover of Time magazine. He was on front pages of newspapers. He never won the reinstatement he so craved, but his lawsuit did result in a settlement of $160,000 in back pay, benefits and other compensation, as well as an honorable discharge.

You can go back and look at the old television clips and see the man himself. Charming, energetic. The close-cut hair, the tidy mustache. Looked like a conservative Republican, which he was. Trim, fit, athletic.

"We are moral, good people who contribute to society," he told the television cameras, when they came to see what a gay soldier looked like.

"I really wanted to stay in [the military], but I couldn't with my conscience. I was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea," he told reporters later.

His last speech was in the rain in Sacramento, six weeks before he died, and he was hoarse and tired and dying, and he talked about love. A Georgia native who grew up in the military, he had the knack for taking your heart and making it catch for a moment, like the way he announced on national television that he had AIDS. He seemed to make people want to be braver than perhaps they were.

"There are people you meet as a reporter that you come to care about," Charles Gibson, then host of ABC's "Good Morning America," said on-air in 1987 after Matlovich announced he was ill, "and he's one of them. He's a very straightforward, very honest, very patriotic guy. He's fought a lot of battles, and I guess this one he'll lose."

Matlovich died the following year.

So there it was, yesterday afternoon, small crowd, a few of the faithful who wanted to remember gay veterans. "Honoring the Fallen," that was the theme printed on top of the program.

The flags were hoisted on either side of the tombstone. Everyone sang the national anthem. The sunlight fell sideways across the hill and down over the old stones and cenotaphs and obelisks. There were responsive readings. Rankin read from "If You Are Able," an excerpt from a letter home from Vietnam.

If you are able, save for them a place inside you

And save one backward glance when you are leaving . . .

People spoke briefly of the dead and fallen, just their names. Tony Smith, a former Air Force senior airman, talked of the sacrifice of Army Maj. Alan Rogers, whom he identified as a gay veteran who was killed in Iraq and is now buried in Arlington.

There was a moment of silence. The wind came through the cherry tree that spreads over Matlovich's grave. In the summer, in the late afternoons here, you hear clanging and noise from over at the D.C. Jail, you hear lawn mowers.

Yesterday, there was only the castanet clatter of the tree's dying leaves in the breeze. And then there was taps -- da-da-dahn -- its three-note stair step up and back down the scale, and the memories of the dead; things that can be remembered but cannot be regained.

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