Why I still serve with Pride today
Serving in the military under Don’t Ask Don’t tell helped form my identity
By: Master Sgt. Jason M. Melton
Military service can be a risky business, especially during times of war. Uniformed service members that identified as LGBTQ+ prior to the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell took on the additional risk of losing their livelihood should they be outedduring times of peace or war.
Serving during DADT helped shape me into the person I am today. My 21-year career has been a journey of self-discovery, character-building, personal growth and challenges. Not in a million years could my 18-year-old self had predicted I would raise my right hand to reenlist for another three years. When people ask me why I continued to serve after my initial six-year enlistment. I tell them that if not for the experiences of those years, I would not be the same confident, empathetic and proud gay man I am today.
I was 12 in 1993 when President Clinton signed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) into law, effectively ending the decades-long ban on gays and lesbians serving in the military. Truth be told, there were tens of thousands of LGBTQ+ individuals serving prior to DADT. The policy did not lead to a rainbow wave in the military like opposition to it feared, but it did recognize the existence of LGBTQ+ service members—an essential first step toward acceptance of our community. When I enlisted in the Air Force at age 18, I was unsure of sexual orientation, so DADT was not a factor in that decision. Had I known my sexual orientation, I would not have joined. As it was, the military was my ticket out of smalltown America and an opportunity to meet people of diverse backgrounds. Contrary to what I told friends and family, it was not because I did not know what to do withmy life, nor was it because of some great calling to serve my country. Sure, those were reasons for joining, but they were secondary. When I think about it, I enlistment was a self-prescribed solution to my identity crisis.
The summer before my senior year of high school, I signed up to join the Air Force. I was 18 and unsure what I wanted to study in college. I did know, however, that I wanted to get out of my small town and see what the rest of the world had to offer.Somewhere in my subconscious, I also wanted to come out, but I was not specifically thinking about my orientation at the time. Small towns in Montana are—how do I say it nicely—diversitychallenged. What little travel I had done prior to joining the Air Force made me realize I was not made for a life in highly rural America. I wanted to get far enough away to figure out who I was and form an identity independent of my upbringing.
I remember being disappointed upon learning my first station would be Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. It was not what I had in mind when I joined the military. Fortunately, a tech school classmate had no desire to leave his family and live in England, so I swapped assignments for Royal Air Force (RAF) Lakenheath, England.
Shortly after moving to RAF Lakenheath, I met and started hanging out with a group of Airmen who happened to be gay. It did not take long for me to realize that I, too, was gay and came out a few months after moving. I was introduced to a large underground network of LGBTQ+ service members of all ranks including commanders, first sergeants, OSI agents and JAG officers. To mask my orientation during duty hours, I created a second, an alternate identity almost, complete with elaborate stories and false experiences. After work, I would go meet my LGBTQ+ friends at designated hangouts and or at the houses of other LGBTQ+ service members who lived off base. This network extended across the Air Force because of the constant flow of people moving on 2 to 4-year tour of duty cycles. Permanent change of duty was made much easier knowing there was a “family” waiting for you at your next duty station.
Those informal networks were an invaluable lifeline for LGBTQ+ service members like me, but there were not without risk. Being outed was always at the forefront of my mind. Every day, in and out of uniform, was a game of cat and mouse between me and anyone who might dislike or oppose my orientation. Many careers were ruined, and livelihoods lost when a homophobic roommate or disgruntled coworker decided to tip off authorities.
I experienced one such close call while stationed in RAF Lakenheath. An Airmen’s civilian ex-boyfriend outed him to his commander and voluntarily handed over all the names and email addresses of the LGBTQ+ network on the base. This prompted what amounted to a base-wide “witch hunt”. Those of us who had empathetic commanders went back to work rattled at the close call and were more careful of how we conducted ourselves, but there were several Airmen whose careers were cut short and kicked out. After that scare, many Airmen in the LGBTQ+ community went back into the closet. Many finished their enlistment and called it quits. A vast majority of us, however, stayed the course. The experience emboldened me. I gained more self-confidence and found solace knowing there were more allies in our chains of command than not. The fear of being found out only encouraged me to take on a stronger gay identity and set an example and be a mentor for service members coming in after me.
The more I embraced my orientation, the less I covered it up. While stationed at Osan Air Base in South Korea, the group of friends I was out to expanded to include straight allies. The last three years of my active-duty career I spent in Camp Darby, Italy, living very much open about my sexual orientation. Out of the closet did not mean off the hook, though. Every day was a careful balancing act—walking within the bounds of a thin grey line. Always cautious, looking over my shoulder being and ever mindful that one misstep could end my career and possibly ruin my chances of a civilian career as well. I learned from my RAF Lakenheath experience that I needed to become a friend to everyone, cross no one and out-perform my peers in my work, professional military education and physical fitness. If another Lakenheath-type situation did happen, I would give my Command every reason to justify my military existence and avoid discharge.
Would I have worked as hard at being a standout Airman if not for the pressures of DADT? I would like to say, yes, but it is impossible to know for sure. What I can say is that I lived a lifetime of experiences during my six-years on active duty, and I would not have had those had I not joined the military under the context of DADT.
I believe character building involves recognizing and overcoming life challenges. Being a gay man in the Air Force during DADT came with its fair share of them. Physically, I was prepared for whatever came my way. I was heavily involved in sports growing up and my football pre-season two-a-days were much more rigorous than anything I experienced in basic training. The structured environment suited me and I enjoyed school, so that was not an issue for me either. Family separation worked to my benefit because the distance from family made coming out easier. To my leadership, colleagues, friends and family, I appeared to be happy and achieving success. I was promoted Below the Zone to senior airman, earned high marks on my career development courses and was awarded Airman of month, quarter and year on multiple occasions. The biggest challenge I faced early in my military career was my own identity crisis. I was not doing so well—mentally and emotionally. I was struggling with my identity thanks to my newly discovered sexual orientation, and I was struggling with the difficulty of living two separate lives and the stress and anxiety that it brought me. I had created two versions of myself—one gay and one straight—out of necessity for fear of being kicked out of the military.
I had never taken an acting class growing up, but I adapted,and soon perfected, a two-man show so convincing that even I found it hard to distinguish between the truths and lies I was living. Switching back-and-forth between gay and straight identities is something that many in the LGBTQ+ community do quite well. The act becomes much harder without the solid foundation of a well-established self-identity and low self-esteem. I was on a fast-track to self-destruction. I started drinking heavily, drinking alone and driving under the influence at dangerous speeds. At my lowest, I crashed two cars within the span of a month. Both times I was lucky enough to walk away without injury to myself or others and without a DUI. The breaking point came after the second car crash. I realized that if I wanted to live, and live a productive and healthy lifestyle, I needed to accept my true authentic self and come to terms with my sexuality. Once I did, it became easier for me to talk to fellow services members about what I was going through. I was surprised to learn that many of them shared similar experiencesas I. Talking through my struggles gave me the confidence I needed to come out to my family. I mostly dropped my straight persona after coming to terms with my orientation. I could not come out at work because of DADT, but at least I could be honest with myself, family and friends. From then on when colleagues asked me about my personal life at work, I told the truth keeping them vague and light on the details. My biggest pitfall was thinking I had to endure my struggles alone. Much of the pain suffering I endured could have been avoided had I reached out for help. If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 1-800-273-TALK (8255). More information can be accessed here < Caution-https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ >
By the time my active-duty enlistment ended, I had developed a solid sense of identity and new expectations for my civilian life. I was proud of my military service and the person I had become. The stress and anxiety caused by the fear of being kicked out of the military had made me resilient. In six short years I gained a level of confidence in my identity that I would not have been able to achieve in as short of time had I not served during DADT. My newfound confidence made the decision to continue my military career in the National Guard easy.
When I joined the National Guard, I had a well-established self-identity and had a solid foundation from which to continue building. I still bore the weight of living with some degree of fear knowing my military career was at the mercy of anyone who knew my orientation but hiding it one weekend per month and two weeks per year was much easier than every day as in active duty.
The repeal of DADT in 2011 provided vindication for me and tens of thousands of American service members present and past. I felt my government had finally validated my military service and the sacrifices of so many gay, lesbian and bisexual service members. I was finally able to be my true self in both civilian and military careers which meant spending less time hiding and more time focused on the mission.
I recently reenlisted in the District of Columbia Air National Guard adding three more years to my existing 21 years.
Today, when I am asked why I continue to serve my country after so many years of service, I say with confidence, that I continue to serve because I can serve openly with pride about who I am. I cannot think of a better way to say it.
Master Sgt. Jason M. Melton is the superintendent of public affairs for Headquarters, D.C. Air National Guard