This week I have the honor of returning to my alma mater, the University of Southern California, to speak at the School of Social Work’s All School Day. All School Day is an educational forum co-led by students, faculty and staff (1000+) to discuss how we can better communicate across differences in race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, social class and disability. Born out of Los Angeles’ civil unrest in 1992, All School Day has become an annual event recognizing and celebrating diversity through an exchange of ideas and discussion that unite participants in an atmosphere of cooperation, respect and inclusion.
This year’s theme is “Serving Those Who Serve in the Military” a discussion of the problems service members and their families face when transitioning from Active Duty to Veteran status. I have been asked to provide comments on the unique challenges that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) service members face as they transition to veterans status in a post-Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) world.
In preparing my comments, I took a long look back on my personal transition from Active Duty. In 2007 DADT was in affect and there was no indication that the law would be or could be changed anytime in the near future. For that reason, among others, I decided not to accept augmentation into the regular Marine Corps and resigned my commission. I had done very little to prepare for my transition. My sexual orientation had become such a major part of my life and all I cared about was being about to live openly and honestly for the first time in my adult life.
Admittedly, I neglected my physical and mental health needs while I was on Active Duty, and I maintained that trend once I transitioned to the Veterans Administration (VA) Healthcare System. Like most Marines, I hated going to the doctor, but I understood very well the stigma that accompanied being “broken.” I also understood that I would be asked some very pointed questions during my annual exam that I simply could not answer honestly without outing myself and putting my career at risk. Going to the doctor wasn’t worth it.
Seeking any type of mental healthcare treatment was even further out of the question. Being “broken” was one thing, but going to “see the wizard” opened the doors for an entirely new level of stigmatization and harassment. I recall struggling to accept my sexuality and the inability to reconcile my sexual orientation with my religious beliefs. It weighed heavily on my mind and I knew I needed to talk to someone. Going to see a therapist to process the experience should have been a safe option. It wasn’t. I decided instead to seek council from our unit’s chaplain. I made an appointment and brought up the topic during our conversation out of concern “for a friend.” The chaplain initially thought I was asking about the morality of interracial dating. He assured me there was nothing immoral about that. When I corrected and told him that “my friend” was dating someone of the same sex, not someone outside of race his moral compass gave a much different reading. It was wrong. End of conversation.
After those experiences during my time on Active Duty, lying to healthcare providers became a pattern of behavior that I carried with me for years. My body, mind and spirit suffered. It took an extended period of time for me to trust the people I needed to trust the most: civilian doctors and nurse practitioners, therapists, religious leaders, etc., all of whom play an important role in aiding service members’ successful transition to civilian life. And then it hit me, transition is reliant upon trust, not only for me or for LGBT service members, but for ALL service members.
Trust is a fundamental component of every service member’s military experience. In Boot Camp or Officer Candidate School every Marine, Soldier, Airman and Sailor is taught to trust the person on his/her left and right with his/her life. In battle the ground units must trust that the air units will be there to support them when called upon. During evaluations for promotion service members have to trust that their evaluation is based on their performance and not overshadowed by their gender, race and/or sexual orientation. When that trust is shattered, it can be devastating and leave a long lasting impact on the service member’s life, especially during transition to civilian life.
As healthcare service providers, community leaders, policy makers and advocates, we have a social responsibility to continue to serve those who serve in the military as they transition to civilian life by building and maintaining trusting relationships with our veterans. That is not as easy as it sounds. We must build trust through our actions, not empty words or promises. We must build trust by taking the time to listen and not casting judgment. We must build veterans’ trust by first earning it. And once we have it, we must understand that it is not something to be squandered.