Sunday, May 06, 2012

Two Corpsmen I Once Knew

Growing up in the late 60's and 70's, I can honestly say I had friends of just about all stripes. They were black, Irish, Chinese-French, Italian, Native American, Greek, from India, and some were just "mutts'. A few were Catholic, some were Hindi, a couple were Jewish, but most were Protestant of various denominations. Some were so dirt poor that they could only hope to move up to public housing. A few were from wealthy families, but the majority were somewhere in the Middle Class. Most seemed to come from stable families, while a few quickly became "survivors" . It wasn't really until I was stationed in San Francisco during the mid to late 1970's that I met with my first exposure to gays, and I was on the receiving end.

Two friends and I (along with our girlfriends at the time) had ventured into Castro District. Unbeknownst to us, Castro was considered the "gay" side of town. All we knew (or cared about) was really good and cheap food. We had found a little Greek sandwich shop, and while waiting on our order, we suddenly heard a huge commotion and everyone took off outside. Naturally, we walked outside and much to our provincial Southern and Midwestern awe, we were ground zero in San Francisco's 2nd Annual Gay Pride Parade. It was one on the most amazing events I ever saw for oh so many reasons! Later, my girlfriend and I went walking to look at the most beautifully restored Victorian era homes. Suddenly, we noticed we were being stared at; then came cat calls and a more than a few loud snide comments directed at us. We suddenly became self conscious about our holding hands. For the first time in my life, I knew what it felt like to be the subject of ridicule. We had many more experiences after that. Most was positive, some not so much.
It was during the parade that I recognized two individuals who were participating and ---shall we say---"provocatively dressed" , and more importantly, they saw me. These two individuals were active duty Navy Corpsmen and my boss was the base commander. In those day, a single word (especially from someone in my position) would have resulted in their detention by base security. They would have been confined in a security holding cell and received immediate General Discharge (less than Honorable) with 24 hours. What to do? My job was to report it. My lack of exposure made me slightly fearful and yet, I found myself intrigued at why they would put themselves at such risk.

Upon returning to the base that afternoon, I stopped by my office, were I had access to the personnel records. I fixed myself a cup of coffee and notified base security across the hall that I was there catching up on some work. While I pulled their files, I wondered what they might thinking about now. Both were First Class Petty Officers; just one step below the coveted rank of Chief. Both had, up to point given at least 12 years of their lives to the military. Was now all in vain? Neither knew me very well, but they most certainly knew who I was and who I worked for.

Both individuals had volunteered for military service. A rarity in the Vietnam Era where very few stepped up to fight for a war no one wanted except the politicians and industrial-military complex. Most were drafted. LBJ and Nixon had proven to be failures and liars. Jimmy Carter, despite being a former Navy, was quickly proving himself inept (within a year, he would remove all doubts and secure that distinction for himself until recently). One was from the Midwest like two of my friends while the other grew in Florida just as I had done. Much of their service record was unremarkable, except for one interesting section.

It seems that both if these men, who graduated near the top of their "A" School class as Corpsmen, asked to be stationed in Vietnam with Marine Corps units on the ground. That was serious "in-your-face" duty. that no one wanted . It was unbearably hot, dirty, and incredibly dangerous work. A good place to be if you wanted to die young. Their personnel reviews were all top notch, with several letters of commendation. I found a few notes addressed to their respective commanding officers from Marines whose lives they had saved (or who had saved or tried to save the lives of one of their buddies). I was starting to see a very different picture than what I had imagined. It was in Vietnam that they shared a common duty assignment. It must have been there that they first meet.

After rummaging through more pages, reviewing applications for various awards and ribbons that I decided I had read enough. That Monday, I walked over to the dispensary and asked to meet with both of them privately. When they walked in, I could almost see their hearts drop. Their faces went pale as they almost involuntarily glanced around for base security. There was an eternal moment of silence before one asked if they were to be arrested (I wondered if they realized that they were almost involuntarily reaching out to touch each other's hand? No matter). I paused for a moment. For me not to do anything carried its own ramifications for me. I could face a similar scenario as both them. After all, it was not just against Navy policy. It was against policy of the US Armed Forces. But how could I say anything? How could I not say anything? What moral right did I have to say who one could be in love with? Isn't that what the world needed more of? I certainly didn't understand it. How could someone not like girls I thought? I was the base liaison to the Jewish Community in the Greater Bay Area. I thought of the Jews, and the Gypsies, and yes, the gays in Nazi Germany and the conquered territories. How many millions were shot, gassed, or burned just for being different? Wasn't destroying their careers the modern equivalent?

Quietly, as if I was now suddenly drawn into their secret, I explained that I had reviewed their personnel files. They had led an exemplary service to this country. I asked what their plans were? Would they go back go after their time in the service? Both indicated they knew they'd never make Chief, and it was only a matter of time until someone found them out. They fully knew and excepted the risk. They had both contrived to be stationed in San Francisco, which was one of the few places they felt "safe" (which is why they also lived off base). They didn't know if they would go back home. No one there would ever accept them they said. Until then, they wanted to make their home in Northern California and continue in their medical profession. After all this, all they wanted was each other and to help strangers. Wow. I shook their hands and thanked them again for their service to the Navy; the Marine Corps; and to this Country and left the room; shutting the door behind me and leaving them to each other.

As I walked back to my office, taking the long way along and watching the waves break along the breakers, I wondered if I had made the right decision. What it was someone else who had seen them? Would they had made the same decision? Would someone be making a similar decision 20 or 30 years later? Would someone's sexual orientation in the military even be an issue then? For me, it didn't affect me or my sexuality. I still liked girls...a lot. All that mattered to me was whether the individual next to me could and would do their job to the best of their ability. My life was in their hands and theirs was in mine. That was the definition of comradeship.

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