‘So much change in two decades of human life’

‘So much change in two decades of human life’

The moment almost slipped by. Frustrated with the tedium of obtaining our military ID cards, I barely noticed the gravity of this little piece of plastic. After months of trying to schedule the appointment, find the right office and come on a day when the machine was working, I sat in a nondescript office on an Army National Guard base, waiting for the machine to print out my new military ID and the ID for my spouse – my husband – who was sitting next to me. The tiny ID card granted me more than access and representation; it’s a period on the end of a long sentence that started years ago.

As I watched the Twin Towers fall that bright autumn morning on 9/11, I felt compelled to do something. I was a young gay man recently graduated from high school, with no real direction or anything going on. So I took this yearning for action right into my nearest recruiting office for the U.S. Coast Guard and enlisted. Alongside my patriotic surge was internalized homophobia, and I thought to myself that maybe the military could be a “solution” to my gayness. Perhaps the military might “set me straight.”

This didn’t happen; what did was a continuation of my prior life as a closeted gay man in deep denial. I had learned at a young age to control most of my social interactions, thereby avoiding the conversation’s focus falling on my own sexuality. And as it sometimes did, I learned to say something like, “I’m waiting until I marry to have sex.”

Immediately following Coast Guard boot camp, I was stationed as a deckhand on a Mississippi River boat. Onboard, the 11-man crew was tight-knit. When the inevitable and often braggadocious sex conversations surfaced, I conjured some stories about how my long-lost love was so far away, and this was the reason I didn’t want to go on a date with so-and-so’s wife’s best friend. These testosterone-fueled p------ contests bored me, and I tried as much I could to avoid them on the cramped river boat. And in the military, at the time, I was safe. I could always rely on “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

The policy was a supposed solution to the growing acceptance of homosexuals in American society during the 1990s. It was a détente between the military and society, and it made a sort of agreement that went like this: gay people could serve in the military, but they couldn’t be open, or “tell” anyone they were gay, and military members could not “ask” other members if they were gay. Both actions – the telling and the asking – came with the consequence of being swiftly discharged from service. Oddly pleased to be under the protection of such a policy, as not many of my fellow servicemembers asked me about my sexuality for fear of retribution, I was eager and willing to place my sexual identity on the back burner. Simmering.

This went on, and I became lonelier. Eventually becoming a helicopter mechanic, I moved away from the river boat to a Coast Guard air station in Tampa Bay, Fla. There, I felt a renewed sense of self. Becoming a helicopter mechanic wasn’t easy for me; it was something I never thought I’d see myself do. Society had told me I wasn’t the “mechanic type” because I lettered in theater, liked to read books and wasn’t into sports. For the most part I believed this entrenched stereotype, until I found I enjoyed mechanics, and this discovery gave me confidence and drive.

With my new identity and change in geography, my skin began to itch in its closeted state. The winds of change began to blow in the late summer of 2005. It was August, and Hurricane Katrina was barreling into the Gulf Coast. The world watched as it raked across New Orleans, a water titan leaving a wake of oceanic destruction. I was just as eager to rush to help as I had been four years earlier, and begged my supervisor to let me go to New Orleans on a rescue deployment. He pointed to a helicopter undergoing a pre-flight inspection and said, “That flight leaves for Mobile, Ala., in an hour. If you want to go so bad, get ready fast.”

For the next few weeks, I felt a deep sense of fulfillment among the frenzy of the seemingly impossible rescue efforts. Helicopters were constantly leaving and arriving, needing all sorts of inspections and repairs. I was on a team that on some occasions slept on the hangar deck floor, working around the clock and eating MREs – something I only had heard about from my best friend in the Marines, or my sister in the Navy, on their wartime deployments. In the limited moments of down time, I took a government vehicle with a few fellow servicemembers and drove around town, handing out water and food to people, recently homeless, on the streets. On the nights we didn’t sleep on the deck floor, we stayed in a local hotel. The parking lot was full of recent climate refugees, clutching the few things they had on the hot black asphalt. At the end of my time there, things had become considerably quieter and I was preparing to go back to Tampa Bay. The meaning of the moment was sinking in. I was in the belly of the beast, doing whatever I could during all hours of the day, and I felt at home in the midst of the chaos. This was exactly why I had joined the military.

One night back in Tampa Bay, not too long after the Hurricane Katrina deployment, I went to a concert with my roommate, a fellow Coastie. While drinking beers before the concert, his body language shifted in a way that made me nervous. I knew what was coming.

“Hey, I got a question for you. You don’t have to answer it, if you don’t want to ….”

He was going to ask me about being gay, I recognized the framing, and his body language from when I was a teenager in the ‘90s, and my mom or a girlfriend would ask me. Regardless of its awkward and painful nature, it was familiar. I almost had the script memorized, the same lies over and over again. At first it often seemed innocuous, but as I aged these quick little lies seemed to hurt more; like unhealing paper cuts, they accumulated and compounded. After he asked me, I did my usual song and dance and told him a lie about why I was single. He mumbled about how his wife had been the curious one. Then we ordered another round of beers and started doing awkward things like looking at our watches and wondering aloud about when the show would start. Then I just felt a dam break inside – I was ready for this cycle to end. I blurted out, “Ask me again. Ask me your question again.”

“What question?”

“The one about being gay.” Before he could say anything, I said, “Because I am.”

After Katrina passed, it was obvious that large parts of the Gulf Coast wouldn’t be the same again. I felt unrecognizable to myself in a lot of ways, and life had a new hue. With the help of my caring roommate and his loving wife – who, as it turns out, had perfectly operational gaydar – I cautiously took the first few steps out of the closet and placed my toe into a gay-hued world. I was excited to finally experience dating and relationships just as I had watched everyone else around me do. I had had girlfriends in high school, but those were disguises for everyone else. They weren’t just anybody's; I did have special connections with them, many as lasting and endearing friendships. While I can’t say I was sexually attracted to them, I enjoyed spending time with them, and to this day I feel bad for using them. But there in Florida, the world was new! I went on first dates, kissed, danced, went to the movies and walked on the beach.

This is when the policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” started to become more abrasive, less protective. It happened slowly. I’d had multiple conversations with my shopmates about why I didn’t have a girlfriend, and I regularly fed them lines about a long-lost love across the country. But on a typical Monday when I would be working alongside one of my shopmates, and they might ask, “What did you do this weekend?” Instead of saying nothing, I felt like saying – something. The truth was, I was experiencing love and emotions and energy like never before, and I wanted to share. I heard about all the other guys and what they were doing with their wives or girlfriends, and about the movies they went to see or romantic dinners out. But I felt somehow trapped by any kind of revelatory conversation for fear of where it might lead. Who were you with? Did you go by yourself? And so I kept silent. That existence day after day became reminiscent of the closet from which I was planning my escape, and I almost couldn’t take it.

So when it came time to renew my enlistment, I decided to get out of the military. I was honorably discharged after four years and 10 months. I loved this time in the Coast Guard, both the river boat and the air station. I had learned to challenge myself in ways I hadn’t before – scholastically, and mentally by becoming an aircraft mechanic. And physically by doing day-to-day tasks on deployments, and as a deck worker on the Mississippi River. I learned the foundations of leadership and what it means to follow. The importance of comradery and fellowship became guiding principles I carry with me today. And after having joined when I saw the attacks on 9/11, I felt a sense of deep honor and service when I was able to be there during another national time of need following a catastrophe.

My time in the military helped me develop the skills I took with me into the next decade of my life, and as a result I kept military service on the back of my mind, either as a reservist or possibly active duty once again. I worked as a civilian aircraft mechanic until the 2009 recession, then went to school full-time using my Post-9/11 GI Bill. After my undergraduate degree, I got a master’s degree. And I met, fell in love and married my husband. We have jobs, a house, a dog and cat, and are on an adoption list.

Noticing I was going to soon “age out” of any chance of serving in the military again, I decided to explore the possibility. After many hours and months of soul-searching and long conversations with my husband, we decided I should at least submit a kit for a reserve officer position in the Navy. The Navy, specifically an intelligence position, was the best choice for me and my interests as they had developed from aircraft maintenance to global cultures, climatology, ecosystems and economies. As fate would have it, I got in and once again joined the military.

Which brings me to now, with my husband, sitting there, waiting to get our ID cards. In 2020, everything was moving slowly because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and administrative work was no exception. So after several attempts to try to get the ID cards, there we sat. I was in no mood to do anything but get the cards and get out of there. But after casually mentioning it to a wise older gay friend of mine, he said,

“Wow! Did you’d ever think you’d see the day when you and your husband would get military ID cards?”

I hadn’t. And after I realized the magnitude of the experience, I was surprised I hadn’t. These are the funny little times when you might imagine yourself using a time machine to go back and say, get a load of this. I would have never imagined as a closeted gay kid from Nebraska in 2001 that I would have been able to meet a man, fall in love with him, exercise my right to marry him, and have the U.S. military recognize this by treating our relationship like any heterosexual relationship. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed in December 2010, and here we were in December 2020, an illustration of equality – progress. My husband and I just made the appointment, went in, got the cards and never expected anything else. Our home has both our names on it, we filed taxes jointly, and we are on an adoption list as a same-sex married couple.

I’m living the life I never thought would be possible, and I hadn’t even noticed. So much change in two decades of human life that I almost missed this historic difference. How many times in our lives do we let the mundane of what is happening cloud the epic nature of what is going on?

James V. Benes is a member of American Legion Post 3 in Lincoln, Neb.