My Gay World: Uncle Sam’s Closet
Words & photos by Wil Whalen
I served in the United States Army from 1988 to 1992. When people find out I’m a veteran, they usually want to know two things: Why I enlisted if I knew I was gay, and what it was like to be a closeted gay man in the Army.
I joined the Army because I wanted to serve my country. Being a closeted soldier was no different than being a closeted civilian.
That is, until I fell in love.
At the end of Operation Desert Storm, each unit was required to leave a certain number of soldiers behind to work the seaports. These soldiers would be responsible for loading all of the Army vehicles and equipment onto massive cargo ships. Being one of the newest members of my unit, I was placed with an infantry squad and worked in the belly of the ships, chaining down he vehicles so they wouldn’t shift during the long transit back to America. It was physically demanding, securing everything from small generators to large battle tanks to disassembled UH-1H helicopters.
One day, while chaining down a large tank, the wrench I was using popped off and I flew back eight feet. One of the ships crewmen noticed, came over, and as he helped me up I looked into his eyes. I went speechless. He was handsome, masculine, rugged and had the nicest smile I’d ever seen.
I immediately turned away, mumbled, “Thanks,” and went back to work. I was afraid to look back for fear he may still be standing there, but as I bent down to pick up the wrench he walked my way. He offered to help and we made eye contact again.
We both went quiet and I realized he was feeling what I was feeling. I quickly smiled and excused myself to join some of my comrades at lunch. I couldn’t explain what had just happened and put it in the back of my mind. Whatever it was, I believed it couldn’t happen again. Luckily, this was a big ship and since I was only there four more days I assumed I’d never see him again.
But I did see him again. It turned out he was a former Navy Captain and the ship’s pilot. He had me appointed as his assistant, which meant I was at his beck and call. Needless to say, our connection became brutally intense. He would sneak me away to private parts of the ship so we could talk and spend time together, then he would take me up to his stateroom so he could hold me. For the first time in my entire life, I was in love—yes, in that very short time— and no one could have ever prepared me for how overwhelming and wonderful love would be.
At the end of the fourth day, the Staff Sergeant rounded up the squad and escorted us off the ship. Even though he and I had already exchanged every last bit of contact information, I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. I stood there on the pier, staring up at the massive ship, butterflies raging in my stomach, waiting for him to appear. We couldn’t say a proper goodbye in front of everyone, but I would have settled for a final nod of his head.
Just then, someone came running off the ship and over to my sergeant. Evidently, as the pilot’s assistant, I was needed back on the ship to sign off on a few things. So I ran back onto the ship, to his stateroom, and burst through the door into his arms. We held each other so tightly. It was the best and the worst I had ever felt in my entire life.
We eventually said our goodbyes— yes, through our tears— and then I made my way off the ship and back to my squad. I was still in the Army and had to remain closeted, but we vowed to do everything in our power to make it work.
We wrote long love letters, and to remove suspicion, he rarely put a return address on the envelopes. I hid his letters inside the dust jackets of books, in the pockets of my civilian winter coat, and underneath the drawers in my wall locker. I would ride my bike all over Fort Campbell every night searching for quiet phone booth where I could call him, and we would talk for hours. When I finally saw him over a holiday weekend, I was surrounded by gay men and women for the first time in my life and allowed to be myself. It was liberating and exhausting. Every preconceived notion I had about gay men and women was tossed out the window. His friends were normal people who lived openly gay and happy lives. It was intoxicating. But then reality set in and I was back on a plane bound for Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
The months between our visits became hell, going back and forth, in and out of the closet. It felt like I was not only living a double life, but that I had become two different people. In Rhode Island I was a fun outgoing guy who lived with a sense of freedom and happiness, while in Kentucky I was a dark, sad and angry soldier who grew to resent everything about the Army.
Ultimately, reality set in for my former Navy Captain, and he knew that we didn’t stand a chance. We lived too far apart and my future was too uncertain. He could tell that this relationship was taking an unhealthy toll on me and that I needed to concentrate on being a soldier for the remainder of my enlistment. He knew I had a lot of decisions to make about my life and he didn’t want me to factor him into those decisions.
So after a visit over the Fourth of July I called him from a payphone away from the barracks. That’s when he broke things off. He was pretty blunt, telling me he didn’t love me, he was past his infatuation, and would I please stop calling and writing. He told me that he was sorry he let it get this far and he didn’t mean to let me fall so hard for him.
“Are you fucking kidding me?!” I thought.
According to him, I was too young, had too much ahead of me, I needed to live my life for me and if I moved up to Rhode Island for him I would end up feeling resentment. He said he could take me hating him for breaking my heart, but he couldn’t take me resenting him for ruining my life.
There was a long silence. Then I swallowed my pride and said, “Great. So... have a nice life.”
I hung up the phone and exploded, hitting and kicking the phone booth while yelling and cursing him the whole time. I felt my entire world closing in on me, like I was the butt of a very cruel joke. I wanted so badly to have never met him because nothing could be worse than how I felt right at that moment. By the time I got back on my bike, the phone booth had become a pile of broken glass and phone parts.
Every waking moment of my life I thought about him, perpetually on the verge of an emotional break down. I was harboring so much anger, resentment and hurt, and I didn’t have even one person on the entire planet I could talk to. I was a soldier in the United States Army, I had duties to perform every single day, and I couldn’t have had my heart broken by another man because I signed a piece of paper swearing I wasn’t gay. So despite all of my inner turmoil, I performed my duties as expected.
In late November of that year, five months before my release date, the Pentagon made a series of budget cuts and I accepted the offer of an early release. But leaving the Army was bittersweet. I believed that nothing I would do for the rest of my life would equal the sense of camaraderie I had with my fellow soldiers, and nothing could compare to the thrill of graduating basic training, tossing live grenades, helping tear down the Berlin Wall, spending 37 days alone on a radio relay site in Saudi Arabia, or rappelling out of a Blackhawk Helicopter from 125 feet; though no one could ever take those things away from me, nothing else would ever compare.
With no real place to call home, I moved to Chicago. My cousin lived there, we were close, and so I came out to her. She thought my news was exciting and told me I was in the perfect city. Then she looked at me and asked, “Oh my gosh, what was it like to be gay in the Army?”
“Being a closeted soldier was no different than being a closeted civilian,” I said. “That is, until I fell in love...”
It’s almost twenty years since all of this transpired and I still remember it like it was yesterday. Though it took a few [post-Army] years, my former Navy Captain and I were able to salvage our friendship. It took me a long time to realize that he did what he did for my own good and I’m a better person for it. I did need to go out on my own before settling down with someone, and at 41 years old I still feel like I have a lot to learn and a lot of life to live.
My adventures in the Army were only one part of my fantastic journey, but it was the Army that taught me the survival skills I needed to navigate life. I may not be tossing live grenades or jumping out of helicopters, but I have climbed mountains and lived in urban jungles. And I have found that camaraderie I so cherished among my civilian friends.
Strangely enough, or maybe not so much, I eventually found my home on the coast of Southern Maine, just a few hours north of my former Navy Captain. Though it’s nice to reminisce, I’d not go back for anything in the world. Every step I’ve taken in my life has led me to where I am right now and I couldn’t be happier. Like our state motto says, it really is the way life should be.
William B. Whalen
South Portland Maine
June 7, 2010
William B. Whalen is a freelance writer, photographer and graphic artist living in South Portland, Maine with his best friend Russ and their dog Jake. While in the Army, he served with the 440th Signal Battalion with V Corp in Darmstadt, Germany from 1988-1990. He then served with the 101st Airborne Air Assault out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky for the remainder of his enlistment. His signal unit A Co. of the 501st Signal Battalion was the furthest deployed communication unit in Operation Desert Storm. He recently got back in touch with his comrades from the 440th in Germany and they are all meeting in Las Vegas in 2010 for a reunion. They’re all very excited he’s coming, as it’s been said that gay men make the best wingmen on the planet.
Read the first in our series - My Gay World: Serving in Silence.