CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – Spc. Corderra Dews, 24, was living in Austin, Texas, and openly gay before he joined the Army in 2011, a couple of months before the end of "don’t ask, don’t tell," the policy that kept gay troops in the closet at the risk of losing their jobs.
"When you come out and you’ve been out so long, it’s hard to just go back in," Dews said.
During basic training, people questioned his sexuality because he never spoke about women. "I would just walk away instead of denying it," Dews said.
But while Dews was still in Advanced Individual Training, "don’t ask, don’t tell" was repealed.
"I was really excited because in my head, I felt like eventually I’d be able to be myself at some point in time," Dews said.
Last year, with the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act, the Army extended benefits to same-sex spouses, furthering the full inclusion of gay and lesbian troops in the military.
Dews, now a fueler with 2nd Battalion, 44th Air Defense Artillery, 101st Sustainment Brigade, is one of seven gay male soldiers who’ve served at Fort Campbell who recently opened up about their experiences serving in the Army before and after the end of "don’t ask, don’t tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act.
While Dews was able to walk away, some went through more to hide their sexuality.
Spc. Brian Scott, 28, is in the Army Reserve, but he was active-duty at Fort Campbell from 2009 to early 2011 in the 187th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne as a fire support specialist. He is also the chapter leader for Kentucky’s OutServe-SLDN, a national organization dedicated to LGBT equality and ending harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in the military.
Scott wasn’t always so open — he was married to a woman for several years in an effort to conceal his homosexuality.
"It was a way to cover myself in the military and my family," Scott said. "I definitely had that fear of not being complete and still having to hide that part of me."
"You have people from so many areas," said Staff Sgt. Chris Swan, 26, with the Army Dental Corps, who comes from a military background. "People will join the military from a small town. Some of them haven’t seen a black person, some of them haven’t seen a Jewish person, some people haven’t been around a lot of different minorities, and they have to learn how to adapt."
Sgt. Kyle Johnson, 29, is now in the Army Reserve but was active duty from 2009 to 2013 at Fort Campbell in 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team. Johnson has wanted to be in the Army since he was a little boy.
He worked in politics for many years before deciding to enlist. In four short years, Johnson became qualified in Air Assault, Pathfinder, received a Combat Action Badge, went to language school for Dari — a variety of Persian Farsi spoken in Afghanistan — and was a sniper team leader for a scout platoon.
"I want to be seen as a person and what I’ve accomplished and the hard work I’ve put into things, not what I happen to do in the privacy of my home," Johnson said. "People see me and what I accomplished and they find out later (that he’s gay) and are like, ‘What?’ Not every gay person bends their wrists and wears pink shirts and flits around. That’s a very small sect of that community."
Stereotypes of gay people remain prevalent and deep-rooted, particularly about gay men. "Everyone expects them to be very, very flamboyant," Scott said.
Sgt. Cristian Saldana, 23, gets similar reactions. Saldana is in communications with 326th Engineer Battalion, 101st Sustainment Brigade, and is married to Spc. Nicholas Harriel.
"I always get the comment ‘You’re not the stereotypical flamboyant gay guy — you’re not flaming,’ " Saldana said.
Many also associate being gay with weakness. "Everybody looks at you, and then when your (physical training) is not as high as anybody else, ‘Oh he’s the gay kid — don’t expect him to run that fast,’ " Johnson said.
Swan agrees, especially when it comes to physically demanding Army roles.
"I know a lot of guys that are in infantry and they’re still closeted because of their job field," Swan said. "In that environment, it’s a very high-testosterone, pro-masculine environment. A lot of people don’t associate being gay with that."
With the repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell," however, gay soldiers have been able to openly challenge those stereotypes, helping to educate straight soldiers who didn’t think they knew any gay men.
"We weren’t that new species anymore," said Harriel, 23, a medic with 86th Combat Support Hospital.
Like any other soldier, gay soldiers find their value not in their sexual orientation, but in how they perform their job.
Dews won his battalion’s Soldier of the Quarter almost three months ago and soon will be competing for the 101st Airborne Division’s Soldier of the Year.
"It shouldn’t be about who I am, it should be about my work ethic and what kind of soldier I am," Dews said.
Sexual orientation is not an all-consuming factor in anyone’s life. Gay soldiers want to be seen as soldiers first.
"A lot of gay people I knew in the Army, no matter what you did … if you cured cancer, it wasn’t ‘Kyle Johnson cured cancer.’ It was ‘That gay guy that cured cancer,’ " Johnson said. "Anything you do has to have ‘gay’ in front of it."
"Me being gay isn’t the most important thing about me," Swan said. "It’s part of me, but it’s not who I am."
LIFE IN THE OPEN
Perhaps the biggest change is that gay soldiers are now able to openly take part in family life with their same-sex spouses.
"I figured maybe I would date someone, but it would always be secret," Spc. Nicholas Harriel said. "I never thought I’d be out to anyone else until I left the military service."
He married Sgt. Cristian Saldana last year, a direct byproduct of the end of "don’t ask, don’t tell" and Defense of Marriage Act. Before, many troops were willing to either never have a partner or have a love life in total secrecy until they got out of the military.
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