With the rights of LGBTQ Americans under threat and on the ballot in two weeks, it seems the proper time to repost this blog I did almost three years ago. It was the hardest thing I ever wrote 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 the truest sentences I know…
Now if you will open your hymnals, on to today’s blog post.
I keep a spreadsheet of blog topics and it currently has 101 entries. Green for the ones I’ve already done and black for possible future posts. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of green lines near the top, since those have been on the list the longest. However, #9 has sat there, conspicuously black in a sea of green, for a very long time. That’s because I’ve been too afraid to write it. Or too embarrassed. Or too ashamed. Maybe 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 and retiring as a lieutenant colonel. I got to fly bombers when I was a young lieutenant, then the Air Force sent me to law school and I spent 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.
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 was a good prosecutor and I very rarely lost. That included courts-martial (criminal trials) but also administrative disciplinary boards. You see, in the military you don’t have to criminally charge people to kick them out. If someone was just a screw-up or had a drinking problem or was just really bad at their job, we could throw them out of the military by presenting the case to a board of officers and asking them to discharge the airman or officer in question.
In 1992, the grounds for discharge also included being gay. 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 by sending really graphic photos of young boys through an old-school AOL gay 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 chat 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 some kiddie porn to the lieutenant—who deleted it immediately and wrote the porn 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 sent with porn.
The investigators at my base 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. And the wing commander decided he didn’t want any gay officers in his command—completely compliant with Department of Defense rules at that time. Which led to the investigation file landing on my desk. I set about preparing what to me was just another in a thick stack of cases, preparing as best I could 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 that we’ve moved on from this insanity.
This lieutenant was like a GI Joe doll, I swear. Handsome, physically 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, every one of whom was asked, “How does the lieutenant compare to every other junior officer you’ve ever known or worked with?” Each one answered, “the top 1%” or “the best of the best” or “I wish I had a squadron full of officers just 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. And the evidence? Two pieces of paper. One was a letter he had written saying goodbye to his first and only boyfriend, right after he 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 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.
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 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, 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 ranking officers and, in a steady and unwavering voice, publicly admitted for the first time that he was gay, 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.
It seems 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.
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.
There’s an ethical question often discussed that asks, “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. Please vote your conscience on 3 November.