When I was in high school, I wanted to be in the Air Force. I had no idea what being a soldier would entail, but a jazz band called “The Airmen of Note” came to HSPVA and blew my mind. I think the words “hot damn” came out of my mouth more than once, especially when the trumpet players were up in the stratosphere. I talked to a recruiter for about an hour on the phone, explaining my medical condition (monocular vision), and the hour ended abruptly. They wouldn’t take me, and I was never going to be an Airman of Note unless Jesus came down and spat on my eyes. I remember the conversation like it was yesterday, because I had a million questions before they got to the part about how I wasn’t fit for duty.
As I said, I had no idea what being a soldier entailed, and I wanted to find out before I signed on the dotted line. The gist is that it would take a long time to work up to being in the jazz band, because I’d have to become a soldier, first.
I was maybe 15 at the time, and of course, at 15, you think you’re going to live forever and you can do anything under the right circumstances. I didn’t have a problem with scary or violent. It just came with the territory.
Many of my classmates went on to join the military, and as they rose in rank, they became something that I wished I could be, but wasn’t. They became guardians and gladiators in the same breath. The ones willing to rush toward danger when I couldn’t, willing to put themselves in harm’s way just to keep me safe, and I never forget that fact.
They get to see a chessboard that most Americans aren’t even aware we’re on, much less able to see the pieces move. Russian bishops and Iranian rooks and African queens and on and on and on and on. As we go through the drive through at Starbucks, as we watch our iPhones for every piece of e-mail and Facebook notification, as we go to church and work and school, they’re out there… and out there is as nebulous a place to me as it is to many others.
It is in these moments I have nowhere to go but gratitude. When it didn’t happen all that often, I’d see a soldier in uniform at the airport and my eyes would water with tears. I would struggle to hold them back as I went up to them and said, “thank you for your service,” or “thank you for your sacrifice.” Now that I’m in DC, I see uniformed soldiers all the time, and the tears have dried up but the gratitude has gotten deeper. There have been times where I’ve walked up and down the Metro stop, shaking each soldier’s hand.
There’s been one time I’ve completely lost my shit in public, though. Just snot and tears running down my face and I COULD NOT EVEN. It was the military float in the DC pride parade, one soldier from each branch and all the flags. I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t move. I was just thinking about what it must have been like before.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was a crock of shit as witch hunts continued to take fine men and women from the careers they deserved, sometimes even when they weren’t gay to begin with. Back then, and I know this because a soldier told me, a straight guy was caught in a gay bar hanging out with friends and “gay by association” was close enough for government work.
We’ve come such a long way since that phone call when I was 15. They didn’t ask, and I didn’t tell. However, I do not have to wonder what my life would have been like had my eyes not kept me out of my precious jazz band. My friends have filled me in more than once, a painful education no matter who was talking.
Being a soldier is tough shit, straight or gay. I’ve heard stories that curled my hair, straightened it, and curled it again. You don’t come away from stories like that without being changed, hopefully for the better because it moves one to act instead of just shaking hands.
When I was younger, I had a soldier friend in need and called in reinforcements to give him Christmas. I could have just shaken his hand, but I knew too much. Service and sacrifice were daily words with a depth of meaning that we, as mere mortals, could never understand.
I don’t always agree with the Commander in Chief, and you don’t have to, either. But my take on it is that boots on the ground deserve all we can give them, because we’re not talking about The Powers That Be.™ We’re talking about people who sign on the dotted line as boys and become men on the job. We’re talking about women who, despite all odds, have overcome incredible obstacles just to be thought of as equal.
I hear their stories, and sometimes I cry. You have to let pain out somehow, and as salty, bitter water drips down my cheeks the only thing I want is to be able to take that pain away, not for me, but for them. You just come to a point of helplessness because there’s nothing you can say that will do it.
Except, perhaps, to listen…. and at the end, say simply, “thank you.”