By Joe Barrows
Twenty-five years ago, I was a kid in the Army placing electronic sensors along trails in Vietnam, south of Da Nang. I received a Bronze Star for the job I did, but for my family and me, my biggest accomplishment was to return home alive and physically unharmed.
It was scary. Not only was the job dangerous, but I was also serving in the Army knowing I was defying a policy that prohibited service by gay soldiers. Rumor had it that those who were discovered to be gay in Vietnam were not sent home immediately. Instead, they went to a military prison in Long Binh and were sent home at the end of their tour with a dishonorable discharge. Needless to say, I stayed in the closet.
It also happened that while I was in Vietnam, the Stonewall revolution was being launched back home.
As I spend Veterans Day reflecting on my time in the war, I can't help but think of today's current soldiers, continuing to serve under yet another discriminatory policy.
It's amazing how much progress the civilian world has made in the last 25 years. From workplace benefits to openly gay members of Congress, we have seen huge results in our quest for equality.
It's shameful so little progress has been made in the armed forces. While new technologies make the tasks I performed in Vietnam look primitive, policies toward openly gay soldiers remain relatively the same. Sure, under 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' gay, lesbian and bisexual soldiers can serve. But they're just as silenced as I was in Vietnam.
If you haven't served in war, it may be difficult to understand how horribly heavy a weight this silence carries with it. Not only are fellow soldiers your colleagues, but they're family - family thrown together in one of the most difficult and challenging times they'll ever face.
You talk each other about everything - from reminiscing about pranks you played on your high school buddy to worrying about how your loved one is hanging in their back home. Not being able to talk about that person you love most is incredibly difficult and it often becomes clear to other soldiers that you're holding something back. That does nothing for unit cohesion.
A December 2003 Gallup poll showed 79 percent of Americans believe openly gay people should be allowed to serve in the military. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) estimates that 65,000 gay and lesbian soldiers are serving in the armed forces today, based on data from the 2000 Census, and that gay men serve just as long and lesbians serve longer than their straight counterparts. SLDN also estimates that approximately 10,000 service members have been discharged under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" since its passage in 1993. This policy doesn't just hurt GLB people, it hurts our national defense.
It's time for the military to shift its policies in the same way its brought its technologies to the 21st century. Groups like the Human Rights Campaign and SLDN, American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER) and Transgender American Veterans Association (TAVA) are working together to ensure that GLBT people can serve openly and honestly.
"Documenting Courage" is a project of HRC, SLDN and AVER that recognizes the contributions of GLBT veterans. I'm proud to be a part of this project and encourage other GLBT veterans to contribute their stories to the project by visiting Documenting Courage. You can also download the publication the groups released in May highlighting several stories and current discriminatory policy.
It is my hope on this Veterans Day that we recognize that GLBT Americans who are serving are risking their lives for the freedom of others while being denied their own. It is my hope that one day soon this wrong is righted and that the only courage we document is not the courage of serving silently, but simply serving.
Joe Barrows is a member of the Human Rights Campaign board of directors.