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NEWS | June 10, 2021

How I survived ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and thrived beyond it

By Brady McCarron Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling Public Affairs

I knew at the age of 10 that I was gay. But in my hometown, and especially in my family, “being gay” did not exist.

My father told me repeatedly that if he ever had a gay son, he would take a bat and beat it out of him. My mother worried what others would think of her if she had a gay son. I thought I could run away to college, but with graduating at 17, my mother refused to co-sign student loans for me. My father already left us to start his life over somewhere else.

When an Air Force recruiter came to my high school a few months before graduation, he told me there was a whole new world out there. I thought maybe if I went into the military, I could be “corrected” and “be normal.” Hiding felt like my only option. Everywhere I went, everyone I knew, everything I saw – I didn’t see acceptance for the LGBTQ community.

I avoided discovery by throwing myself into my work and school. Yet, it only took about four years before I heard the first “he must be gay” comment.
Despite my repeated awards and promotions, I felt the weight of the gossip and feared losing a career in the Air Force I loved. Because of that fear, I made a huge life decision that I regret to this day. I briefly married a woman who promised to keep my secret.

The day we married, it felt like the word “gay” disappeared from the gossip channels. After the marriage ended as we had agreed, I was now able to hide behind the face of a “typical divorced military man.”

However, in 1994, a dark shadow fell over my life as the Department of Defense implemented what I feel was a damaging policy to people’s lives and to the readiness of our force – Defense Directive 1304.26, commonly known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Though it may have been an attempt to the previously more stringent restrictions on gay service members, what we saw under that policy was 17 years of continued discrimination with careers of exemplary Airmen ruined.

It was no longer my father threatening to beat the gay out of me. It was now a Defense Directive threatening my pride in my work and my personal mentality, understanding that I would never be allowed to be who I am.

But there comes a point in your life when you say “enough.”

My moment of truth came the summer of 2004. I finally came out to my family. My father refused to speak to me for five years until his health started to decline, and my mother said she knew all along but was fearful of what my life would be if I came out.

My true self remained a secret from the Air Force, but I allowed myself to start living life. In 2005, finally living in happiness, I found love. As I relaxed in my happiness, when doing things socially, I brought along my “roommate,” who was welcomed with open arms.

In 2007, I was nearing retirement eligibility, and Alex and I made plans for what our life would be like when our lives were no longer shadowed by Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. But when I got a line number for promotion, we decided I’d stick with the Air Force for two more years.

That plan came crashing to a halt when my commander called me to his office for a conversation I will never forget. I was in shock. He was angry. I was angry. He was heartbroken.

Another Air Force member in the building, someone whom I had never met, lied about witnessing Alex and I kissing in the parking lot as he dropped me off for work. I was baffled. Alex had never taken me to work. Of course, there were no witnesses. And the day he said it happened, we happened to be out of state.

But in the era of DADT, only one fact mattered. Gay or not gay.

My commander, first sergeant, senior enlisted advisor and I were required to meet with a prosecutor. My commander advised me beforehand to not to say a single word. The prosecutor offered a paper to initial and sign, detailing this incident that had never happened. My commander spoke for me with a solid “No.” The prosecutor asked me outright if I was gay, and my senior enlisted advisor responded, angry and red in the face, that she had no right to ask that and another question like that would result in a call to her own commander.

I was humbled by these three men in my chain of command trying to protect me, and I was overcome by emotion. And then the flood gates opened. Under oath and on recording, I laid it all on the line. Years of hiding and pouring myself into my Air Force career, I let it all out.

Nineteen years. John L. Levitow Award recipient. Multiple accolades earned as base Airman of the Year and NCO of the Quarter. One special-to-me Commendation Medal from when I intervened to stop a suicide moments before a peer attempted to take their own life. Wartime experience in Iraq with bullets flying. Time spent in field hospital emergency rooms doing my job while trying not to slip on blood-soaked floors. All memories seared into my mind that make me humbled and proud of the 19 years I had committed to serve.

But I could not lie.

“I am gay.”

The silence that filled the room was loud and painful, yet I felt relief.

I thought it best for all that this would not be my fight. Instead, I turned down my promotion and opted to retire, ending all actions against me. I was ready to be me.
The day before I retired, my commander called me to his office one last time. He handed me a bulky blue folder. I opened it and pulled out an overstuffed plastic bag of shredded paper. Inside was every document created through this messy ordeal. We shook hands and smiled.

I retired in September 2007. Alex and I married in 2008. In April 2009, I became a federal employee. We expanded our family with our first son in 2016 and our second in 2017. We have been together for 16 amazingly wonderful years.

Unfortunately, there is not a happy ending for everyone. My dad died in 2011 never wanting to meet Alex or accepting me for who I am. I’m told the individual who lied about witnessing Alex and I kiss continued to have a problem with telling the truth and was eventually released from duty from the Air Force after 13 years.

Despite what happened to me, the worst reality is various sources estimate an approximate 13,000 service members were discharged under DADT before its repeal in 2009.  That number does not account for how many maintained their secret but left on their own.

On Sept. 20, 2011, DADT was finally repealed, allowing gay and lesbian service members to serve openly in the U.S. military. In 2013, spousal and family benefits were extended to same-sex couples. In 2021, the ban on transgender individuals was again rescinded, allowing those who don’t identify with their biological gender to enlist and serve in the armed forces.

Today, our Air Force, as it always has, needs to recruit and retain the best people possible and that means having a diverse and inclusive force with people of all walks of life accepted.  Those in the LGBTQ community who have a desire to serve can now serve in a more inclusive environment that focuses on their abilities as an Airman rather than personal details that have no bearing on their ability to execute a mission.

We’ve come a long way in our Air Force, and it’s encouraging to see so many people – from our highest senior leaders to our first-line supervisors – take a serious look at ensuring all members of the team are treated with dignity and respect.

Despite my personal challenges in my career, I was proud to serve in uniform in our United States Air Force. Today, I’m even more proud now seeing that even in uniform there are no institutional policies forcing me to be untrue to myself.

Diversity is strength. Diversity is power. And with diversity, we remain the world’s greatest Air Force.