With the rights of LGBTQ Americans under threat again, I’m reposting this blog. It recounts my prosecution of an exemplary airman for loving another man. This blog is the hardest thing I’ve ever written and the rightest thing I ever wrote. Hemingway said, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” This post is several of my truest sentences.
Finally Facing My Hardest Truth
I keep a spreadsheet of blog topics and it currently has 101 entries. The ones I’ve already written are in green, possible future posts in black. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of green near the top, since those have been on the list the longest. However, #9 sits there, conspicuously black in a sea of green. From whence it has taunted me for a very long time. I’ve been too afraid to write it, you see. Or too embarrassed. Or too ashamed. Probably all three.
I spent twenty years in the Air Force. It was a good life, exciting and challenging and exhausting in equal measures. I did OK, making all my promotions on time and retiring as a lieutenant colonel. When I was a young lieutenant, I got to fly bombers. Then the Air Force sent me to law school and I did the rest of my service as a military lawyer or judge advocate. My Mom was a huge fan of the TV program JAG, so she was thrilled to be able to say she had a JAG son. I’m content with the memories of those twenty years and mostly proud of my service.
One Haunting Regret
I have exactly one regret. If I got one free do-over or a wish to spend on whatever I wanted, I’d use it to undo this. I ended a young man’s dream career for the crime of loving one other man.
I was a good prosecutor and I rarely lost. That includes courts-martial (criminal trials) and also administrative disciplinary boards. You see, in the military you don’t have to criminally charge people to kick them out. If someone is a screw-up or has a drinking problem or is really bad at their job, you can throw them out of the military. This is done by presenting the case to a board of officers and asking them to discharge the airman or officer in question.
The Crime of Being Yourself
In 1992, being gay was grounds for discharge. In the fall of that year, I was assigned to prosecute just such an administrative discharge case. The “respondent” was a first lieutenant nuclear missile launch officer. He had been swept up as collateral damage in a criminal investigation of a senior colonel at another air base who was caught trafficking in child pornography. He did this by sending really graphic photos of young boys through an old-school AOL chat room.
Let me be very clear. Our lieutenant was NOT implicated in any way in this child pornography nastiness. He had frequented the chat room to talk and nothing more. He was a young closeted gay man and he found a lot of support and collegiality in this anonymous chat room. Unfortunately, one of the people he chatted with was the Porn Colonel who, unsolicited, sent kiddie porn to the lieutenant. Our lieutenant deleted this nasty stuff immediately and wrote the colonel to never contact him again. Unfortunately, when our criminal investigators went through all the Porn Colonel’s online communications, up popped our lieutenant and that one message.
The Witch Hunt Begins
Our investigators got a warrant and searched the lieutenant’s off-base apartment, seizing his computer and all his personal files, too. Although he was quickly cleared of any criminal suspicion, the investigators obviously discovered he was gay. The wing commander decided he didn’t want any gay officers in his command—compliant with Department of Defense rules at that time. This led to the investigation file landing on my desk. I set about readying what was just another in a thick stack of cases, preparing to “give him back to the taxpayers.” And not even for any acts, mind you. Just for the state of being gay.
That makes me nauseous even writing it… and so very grateful we’ve moved on from the insanity of criminalizing the loving of another man.
An Officer and a Gentleman
This lieutenant was a GI Joe doll, I swear. Handsome, very fit, immaculate in uniform, and so polite it was almost unsettling. On top of that, he was a hell of a good missileer. At the board hearing, his defense counsel called a half-dozen officers ranging from lieutenant to brigadier general. He asked every one, “How does the lieutenant compare to every other junior officer you’ve ever known or worked with?” Each answered, “top 1%” or “best of the best” or “wish I had a squadron of officers like him.” And I had zero evidence to refute these glowing assessments, so I didn’t even try.
What I had was proof that he was gay. Period. That was all I needed. The evidence? Two pieces of paper. One was a letter he had written saying goodbye to his first and only boyfriend. This letter was written right after he’d graduated from his Ivy League college and headed off to missile school. Nothing graphic, mind you, just a very sweet, very poignant farewell to the first man he’d ever loved. Second, I introduced in evidence a copy of a letter he’d written to his sister, coming out to her. Until our investigation swept him up, she was the only person in his family who knew he was gay.
Timing Wasn’t Everything
To this day, I cringe at the awfulness of my using those intensely personal letters to end a fine young officer’s very promising career. It was just so very, very wrong.
Did I mention that this board convened on the 6th of November in 1992? As a reminder, Bill Clinton had been elected President for the first time three days earlier. He’d run on a platform containing a plank to allow gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the military. As a result, this fine young man stood before a panel of officers and, in a steady and unwavering voice, publicly admitted for the first time that he was gay. He then condemned the policy that was forcing him out of the Air Force and asked the board to retain him on active duty. It was a very moving moment for everyone in the courtroom. And as anyone could have predicted, the board discharged him from the military anyway.
I hadn’t radiated much enthusiasm with my assigned task. I wasn’t then in favor of banning gays from military service and have remained staunchly opposed ever since. So immediately after the board adjourned, this fine young man whose career I had just ended crossed to the prosecution table and extended his hand to me. I swear, I’m not making this up. I took it out of reflex, too stunned to say anything. He shook my hand and almost whispered, “I know you were just doing your job, Captain Walker.” I felt like the executioner being thanked by Thomas More for sending him to heaven. Looking back now, I so admire that tiny act of kindness to me by this amazing young man.
Calling it My Job?
He was wrong, you know. Many people have said the same to me when I’ve told this story privately. It doesn’t excuse what I did. In the powerful words of Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, “Calling it your job don’t make it right, boss.” I could have refused to prosecute the case, I suppose. Or at least asked to be replaced. I didn’t. Not that it would have mattered in the end. But I freely participated in and stood witness to a grave injustice. It was wrong and I was a coward to participate.
People often ask an ethical question, “What do you do when good people do bad things?” I’ve been left pondering for more than 25 years a variation on that question. What do I do if that good person was me?
Thanks for listening…