John Shields

Suffering in Silence - A Personal Tale of DADT

Filed By John Shields | June 04, 2009 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics
Tags: Don't Ask Don't Tell, gay ban, marriage, military

As a former Air Force officer before Don't Ask Don't Tell was even a twinkle in the eye, I was "in" the US Military when Ronnie was king, Nancy was queen and friends and family were dying by aircraft crashes sideways in the trees and by a disease that had no name.

In all that chaos, we junior special operations flight officers - "too stupid to be scared" - once called it a blast to get paid for flying helicopters upside down. My partner, however, suffered in silence. It was one of many reasons that I left the Air Force, as I couldn't do that - to myself, nor to my partner.

More after the jump...

Many of us think Don't Ask Don't Tell is just simply a "policy" that evolved over time. Wrong.

Before former President Clinton came into office, amidst a firestorm about gays in the military, the "ban" on gays and lesbians serving in the military was just that - a policy. Forcing Mr. Clinton to reverse the "policy," we shot ourselves in the foot and he and a Democratic Congress were complicit in enacting Don't Ask Don't Tell.

You can fool yourself into believing otherwise, but you would be wrong.

But let's break it down to a more personal level. I was a special operations helicopter pilot before most Americans even knew what GPS stood for. We flew in what was then called the "Purple Force" - basically a mixture of the best and brightest across the military spectrum.

From cute Army Rangers to US Navy Seals, I flew them - in the back of my helicopter. At the time (for you military buffs) it was initially called a "Nighthawk," but then we chopped a couple million dollars off and simply called it an Air Force Blackhawk.

Importantly, when we were running late on a low-level NVG (night vision goggle) mission, the squadron operations center would call the spouses and girlfriends to let them know we were ok, and had not crashed.

My same-sex partner, however, never got that call.

It was against military "policy" at the time, and so he had to suffer in silence, wondering if he was going to hear on the morning newscast that a helicopter or two had crashed and why I wasn't home.

That's Don't Ask Don't Tell, to me.

My partner suffering in silence, wondering if I, as well as several others, were lying dead on a desert floor or in the midst of a grouping of trees. Trust me, as I have been there and seen that - and importantly smelled burning flesh - if you think that's pretty, it is not.

There's no way to break the news about a crash of that magnitude - to anyone. As I've had to do it, to a fiancee that was two weeks away from marrying one of my best friends. The chaplain went to his parent's house, while me (as the flight safety officer) and my squadron commander had to break the news to her.

Can you imagine if it was my partner, and no one came to the door? I'm guessing NO.

What kept me awake at night sometimes was that I just couldn't deal with my partner lying awake when I was flying at 50-feet over the trees, wondering if I was safe, or just one of many lying on a desert floor. Just because we were late, and he wasn't "entitled" to a phone call telling him otherwise.

You want to know why DADT is a bad policy, and should be repealed THIS YEAR?

Think about you, tossing about in that bed, wondering if your partner survived the night.

This is not about me. It's about all our military servicemembers that suffer in silence, as well as many of their partners - lying awake wondering if their partners are going to come home. It's about not being able to be on the tarmac to say goodbye when they board that Air Force jet for a foreign land. It's about NOT getting that call, telling them that you are alright. It's about love, compassion and respect.

That's just one of the many reasons why Don't Ask Don't Tell has to end. NOW.


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a very powerful story, a very powerful statement.

i have said this before. discrimination against our young men and women, risking their lives and serving their country, is so wrong on so many levels that it can only be described as a national DISGRACE. every american should be ASHAMED that DADT is still tolerated. congress needs to get off their butt on this, as you stated, NOW.

a very powerful story, a very powerful statement.

Agreed. A great first post to the main site.

Rick Sours | June 4, 2009 2:21 PM

Lesbians and Gay men are serving and have served this county with honor in silence. I agree, Don'tAsk Don't Tell has to end.

Keri Renault | June 4, 2009 6:12 PM

John, it's real life stories that breathe life into the dehumanizing injustice behind discriminatory laws like DADT. Without the chilling truths of these shared examples and many others, DADT is just so many words on paper...and the rhetoric sadly at times, just so much hot air. Thanks for giving DADT the ominious form, shape and identity it deserves It awakens our hearts--hopefully to react with the righteous indignation it deserves to end this unjust code of conduct.

Great post, John. My spouse is an ex-USAF captain, and even though she got out before DADT became relevant for her (she came out later in life), I feel a certain tie to the issue. (I also know a couple, one of whom is active duty military, who are trying to raise kids and stay closeted. Not easy.)

But I have to ask--is it really possible to fly a helicopter upside down? That would seem to violate some basic laws of physics. (Don't feel obligated to answer that if it would ruin your mystique.)

John Shields John Shields | June 5, 2009 1:02 AM

Helicopters aren't "supposed" to fly in general - and that's from Igor Sikorsky, who basically invented the dang machines.

As for flying upside down in one, that is not recommended unless you "trick it out" - pun intended - but, no. Not a good idea. That's a different story for a different day, but suffice it to say we recovered about 75 feet off the ground with one engine. And it changed how the Blackhawk was flown and built afterwards.

Was it fun? You bet. Did I know at the time how dangerous it was? Not a clue...

Flying any Hawk series of aircraft inverted is really not recommended.

And having said that, one has landed upside down ‘perfectly’

Rick Elliott | June 5, 2009 3:46 AM

John, I'm a published storyteller, so I know when someone's done it well--you have!