After the historic Lame Duck repeal of the 1993 Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell ruling, many have written about the military – esprit de corps, readiness, fairness, and inevitably, showering. I write about a soldier.
In 1985, after a set at Sisterfire, an DC women’s music and cultural festival, I was standing under the one shade tree at Tacoma Park High School. A young woman came up to me and shyly asked me to sign her program. She said that if she was seen at the concert she could be court-martialed. I blithely signed, “See you in court!”
Thus began a twenty-six year correspondence, then friendship with the “Chief” – and my continuing education about women in the military.
The Chief is from a small upstate New York town. She wanted to serve her country and under the influence of a nearby Finger Lake, she chose the Coast Guard, and enlisted when she was 21. During her career, she had to work twice as hard to rise from the rank of Storekeeper to Chief Warrant Officer, hence the name “Chief”.
The Chief is a great storyteller. For years I received long, single-spaced typed letters from her. Often she was the only woman on CG cutter patrols, and as a woman with the good ol’ boy salts, and as a closeted lesbian in quarters the size of a closet on heaving seas for weeks at a time, her letters were her way of staying sane. That, and racking up miles on a pitching treadmill.
The Chief’s stories about her cutter’s interdictions – she won’t call them rescues – of Haitian boat people and their return to Guantanamo were full of excruciating detail. As storekeeper-in-chief, her letters were not about dictatorships or the refugee crisis but about finding clothing, lotions, medical supplies, tarps, blankets – the actual items of humane treatment.
Stateside, the Chief volunteered as the CG’s enlisted representative to DACOWITS (the Defense Department’s Advisory Committee on Women in the Services) deactivated by Donald Rumsfeld but now back in action. She was told that she would be grossly outranked as a Chief Petty Officer by senior women from the other services and was asked by her Captain if she would be intimidated. She said no. She was outspoken and argued that the “lesbian witch hunts” harmed straight women. Senior women remained silent but later told her they agreed and thanked her.
Letters became emails. Since retiring, she has written sparely about the Veteran’s Administration. She is not a whiner, at all, but friends finally convinced her that she is entitled to attention for health issues caused by working with equipment designed for men, standing on metal decks for hours in shoes made for men, and the daily operational stress of her work environment. It has taken her seven years to get treatment for one debilitating ailment.
The day DADT was finally repealed I called. She’d been crying. She wished she could have served openly in the military. Given her professionalism, privacy and respect for the military’s “good order and discipline” that might have meant simply putting a picture of her longtime partner, the first woman CG helicopter pilot, on her desk.
Whenever I would rail about DADT, Chief would remind me that it was still better than before. She predicted after DADT there would be no grand coming out statements. Combat soldiers would remain focused on combat. She predicted relief and redress. We both expect that gay soldiers will be treated better than lesbian soldiers.
Chief sometimes thanks me for being an outspoken lesbian, but she who served with dignity in the belly of the military, is the true trailblazer.