There is quite a bit of controversy surrounding plans to allow gays to serve openly in the military and everyone seems to have an opinion about it. But I wonder how many of those on the "anti" side of the argument can actually say they've had an experience on which they base their opposition.
I thought I would inject some reality into the discussion with a little firsthand knowledge of the patriotism and dedication of the gays I encountered while recovering from wounds in an evacuation hospital in Vietnam 42 years ago. My leg had been broken by one bullet and my kneecap torn off by another but the most serious injuries weren't visible. Rather, they were psychic wounds, the kind that stem from the guilt of surviving a battle that claimed the lives of so many of my comrades. As I wrestled with the infection that was eating away at my leg and the sad fact that I was pretty much alone in the world that December, I slipped farther from consciousness into a fugue state somewhere between hope and acceptance of my fate.
Two nurses in that hospital must have seen my symptoms in other patients and spent a lot of their free time sitting by my bedside, reading, talking and just keeping me focused on the present. In doing so, they kept me from sliding farther away from a reality I needed to confront.
Before I left that hospital for Japan, I was informed that the two nurses were "fags." Lots of pejoratives modified the term in what I assume was an attempt to make me hate the two people who went above and beyond the call to make me whole. But adolescent bigotry stemming from ignorance couldn't allow me to see past their dedication and commitment. They didn't care about my sexual orientation. They saw a need and they addressed it with every means at their disposal -- just like soldiers are expected to perform anywhere.
Much later, as I thought about the care I received from those incredible nurses, it occurred to me that while many Americans were lying to get out of military service, these two individuals were lying to get in; lying so they could help; lying so they could feel patriotic about their service in time of crisis. And still, I was expected to be repulsed solely on the basis of their sexual orientation.
We are not far removed from the discriminatory notions the ill-informed once harbored about women in military service. Yet, as courageous women broke the barriers erected by ignorance, we have recognized the important contributions women have made in most military occupations. It's time we dispensed with the notion that any one segment of the population has the market cornered on patriotic sacrifice.
This country can ill afford to turn its back on anyone who seeks to serve, despite the discriminatory notions of those in government loathe to serve but born to lead.
Stephen T. Banko is a veteran who served 16 months in combat in Vietnam. He was shot four times and wounded seven times.