There were conscientious people who believed that what the United States was doing in Vietnam was a tragedy for everyone involved. Those of us who’d served were called “baby killers” and taunted in public. I had no animosity toward those conscientious people.
Bobby and I tried to make light of what was happening. He jumped into the back of the truck and announced “Dumfries own,” a reference we’d heard in old World War II movies to describe small town’s boys going off to war together. Dumfries was a village just outside the Quantico Marine Corps base we were stationed.
We spent a night in the rotunda of the Capitol as people rioted outside along the Mall, stretching from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. We were part of the military force deployed to D.C. to confront the demonstrators.
When I was dismissed I changed into civvies, grabbed my corpsman medical bag and joined the protesters. I had to. I was one of those conscientious people who hated the war. I wasn’t a freak and neither were these protesters. So I went and patched rioters’ head wounds, skin abrasions, and cleaned tear gas from eyes.
In mid-October 1969, the bottom fell out of my life. I was summoned by the commanding officer of the Marines at Quantico who directed me to report to OSI, the Office of Special Investigation. I sat in a small room, where I waited for what seemed like hours. Finally, a man dressed in civilian clothes came in and introduced himself as a special agent of the OSI. He said allegations had been made against me.
“What allegations?” I asked. “You being a faggot,” he said.
I’d been turned in by a man called Anonymous. My military career ended. My years of service in a war zone counted for nothing. My passion for saving the lives of my fellow servicemen counted for even less.
The OSI man said he wanted names and ranks of other homos I knew and that I had to submit to more detailed questioning by other agents.
“You will report back here to my office at 0900 tomorrow. Do you understand?”
A shipmate in Vietnam, David Monarch, had been arrested for being gay and removed from the ship we were on. I leaned he was court-martialed and sentence to prison. Just months before OSI called me in I’d heard David had died at Leavenworth Federal Prison. I never learned how and why, but in 1960s America, we gay men deserved to die, according to popular thinking. So who cared that a queer black man had died in prison?
I was filled with terror at the prospect of dying like David.
I might as well die now, I thought. Under my own terms.
At two in the morning I went to my small laboratory where I worked as a medical technician. The bottles, beakers and Bunsen burners looked frightening in the small light I’d turned on. Frankenstein’s lab, I thought. I removed the burner, leaving the tubing attached to the gas valve. Fitting a large plastic bag, I punched the tube through the closed end and taped around the tube and plastic, making it as leak proof as I could. I pulled up one of the lab’s high stools to the counter and slipped my head into the open end of the plastic bag. Using more tape, I tightened the bag around my neck achieving a good seal.
I turned on the gas to fill the bag. I then turned it off and lay my head on the granite top and shut my eyes.
Was it the war? Was it the harassment for being gay? I didn’t know. All I knew was that I felt like the biggest loser on the planet. I hated being gay and I felt I didn’t deserve to live.
As the gas replaced the oxygen in my system, my head started spinning and I heard squeaky noises inside my skull. Then I felt even suicide was futile. I pulled the plug on the gas pipe, tore off the bag and sat up.
I didn’t want to leave the Navy. It had given tremendous meaning and structure to my life. It had rescued me when I was a lost youth. It had made me a man.
I knew I had to leave however.
I reported to the psychiatrist in my clinic about my suicide attempt. That stopped the legal proceedings in their tracks. Even the U.S. Navy wasn’t so cruel as to deny treatment for someone endangering his life.
Talk to any service person and ask them the most important thing to come out of their service and I bet they will say a DD214 that says Honorable Discharge. That DD214 form then follows you for the rest of your life. Employers can demand to see the form, government jobs especially, to verify the type of discharge. It indicates your job worthiness. The Veterans Administration will use it to see if you qualify for benefits, such as medical and retirement pay.
And it haunts you if you have received a “bad paper discharge.”
Below are the types of discharges the branches of our military use. I will let you look up the definitions for yourself.
General Discharge Under Honorable Conditions
Other Than Honorable (OTH) discharge
Bad Conduct discharge (issued by special court-martial or general court-martial)
Separation for Convenience of the Government
Read more: https://militarybenefits.info/types-of-military-discharges-2/#ixzz6WSkENHjQ
I spent nine months in the hospital when it was decided that I must be discharged from the Navy. The promise from my doctor and the military board indicated I was to have a General Discharge. However I need to qualify that by using the term “bad paper discharge.” As it turn out, the military are qualifying the designation of the other-than-Honorable discharge types. They add codes that tell a different story.
Individuals can be discharged for drug use/sales, anger/aggression towards others, drunk driving and any number of crimes or miss-deeds.
The truth is some of these discharges are the result of PTSD or traumatic brain injury. As service members seeks ways to cope with the invisible wounds they endure in the military they make mistakes. These are the same mistakes that a civilian young person may make, but in the world outside of the military those errors of youth are forgotten.
As a veteran, misspent youth is punishment for life. The DD214 is always the same and never changes. That document will have codes that will indicate why a person is being separated from service. The codes give a picture that is as one dimensional as the ink on the paper.
For these veterans, a bad paper discharge has lifelong consequences, as research shows it can lead to higher rates of unemployment, homelessness and suicide. For gays and lesbians of that time your discharge was designated as a criminal offense.
I received a bad paper discharge for being homosexual. On my DD214 were three codes classifying me as #265, unsuitability because of a character disorder. Second #256, admission of being a homosexual, acceptance of discharge in lieu of board action. That board action is the prison sentence my friend David Monarch received. Third, my re-enlistment code was RE4, unsuitable for military service.
When I left the military I went to Arlington National Cemetery to visit the grave of a man I loved who’d died in Vietnam. His name was Matt and he died a hero.
As I stood at Matt’s head stone. Rivulets of tears ran down my cheeks.
I was never religious. But at that moment I looked to the sky and hoped there was a God and that my Matt was with Him. I spoke the words that I had said that moment when he died. “I wish we could have been lovers. I love you, man. I love you!”
Then I left to start a life that would make his dreams, and mine, come true. A just world for us the homosexuals. I was determined. For 50 years since, I have had many battles with the PTSD I suffered because of my war experiences, but I have also continued to fight for the rights of men and women like me. On June 3, 2019 my DD214 was administratively reissued to show a full and unqualified Honorable Discharge.