'Don't ask, don't tell' ended my military career, but not my service
I knew I was done hiding behind the "don't ask, don't tell" policy after four months flying missions to Iraq as a loadmaster with the 37th Airlift Squadron. It was my second tour -- one I'd picked because of the long hours and irregular schedule, a lifestyle that I thought would make it easier to keep my personal life private. But lying about who you are, especially to people you are serving with, is never easy.
In April 2008, I told my commander that I am gay. He had been with me in Iraq, conducting combat flight missions in the face of small-arms fire, surface-to-air missiles and adverse weather. "It's been an honor to serve with you," he told me. "If you need anything just let me know." Then he sent me home.
By telling someone that I am gay, I had violated federal law -- a law that the military's leadership has finally acknowledged is wrong. "Speaking for myself and myself only, it is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do," Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week.
It's more than just the right thing to do. It's needed to keep our country safe, and it will not disrupt discipline in our armed forces. How do I know? Because after I came out, I accepted a position doing the same job that I did when I was enlisted.
In the 2 1/2 months it took for my discharge to be processed, I began looking for work. I did not want to leave the military -- I would go back in tomorrow if I could -- but I had to move on. I knew from working with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network that it was virtually impossible to win a legal challenge to "don't ask, don't tell."
It turned out that my exact skill set, gained through Air Force training, was in high demand with defense contractors. Within three weeks of my discharge, global contractor KBR hired me to go back to Iraq as a radio repair technician. (KBR knew that I was gay and had received an honorable discharge.)
Within one month of my arrival in Iraq, a former chief master sergeant, now retired and working for KBR as well, sent me to Bagram air base in Afghanistan to manage its technical operations. There, I worked with three former servicemembers whom I had served with while on active duty -- except now I was working with them as an openly gay contractor. None of them thought my sexual orientation posed a problem for our mission. One Army sergeant whom I was working with was particularly confused by the policy. "I can't believe they are still discharging people for being gay," he said. "Don't they know we need everyone we can get in this fight?"
We do need everyone we can get. At the same time I was being discharged, my younger brother, who served a 15-month tour in Iraq during 2004-05 with the Army infantry, was stop-lossed to be sent back for another tour of duty. He had a new wife and a young son; he had fulfilled his initial commitment and wanted to leave the Army to continue his career as a civilian. But our country's needs were too great -- he was told he had to keep fighting. We need everyone we can get in the fight, whether they want to be there or not.
From their Senate testimony last week, it seems that Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates understand how critical it is to overhaul this policy. Mullen said allowing gay people to serve openly is about integrity and honesty, since they're putting their lives on the line for this country. The people who oppose repealing the law argue that it will cause too much stress for a military fighting two wars.
The fear of disturbing good order in the military is a myth. Within a month of my return from Afghanistan last June, a retired master sergeant asked me to come work for him at Andrews Air Force Base. I ended up working with two former military supervisors and one former airman whom I once supervised -- all now contractors. There was no mistake that I was an openly gay man working on a military installation. I even drove around on Andrews in a car with decorations advocating for the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."
I'm lucky that I continue to get job offers without seeking them. This tells me that our military is stretched thin and that the Defense Department is trying to make up for the shortfall by constantly reinforcing our troops with civilian contractors, most of whom have served before -- including the gay ones. As a contractor in Afghanistan, I was earning nearly twice what I would have made had I still been enlisted. But it's not about the money.
For now, I am using the Post-9/11 GI Bill and pursuing a master's degree at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. I am hoping to buy time with this program until I can reenter the military, where my training and skills can be put to better use.
Anthony Loverde is a former staff sergeant in the Air Force.