Part Seven: The Truth Will Set You Free

November 12, 2010

By Huong Nguyen

Year: 1995

After an hour and a half of grilling me about my relationship with a male cadet, the major allows me to leave.

“Aaarrrggghhh!” I let out a roar from the depths of my soul. I’m crazy mad and full of adrenaline. I want to bite the major’s head off, chew it up, and spit it on the ground. The bastard! How could he do that to me? I have worked so hard for this place.

When I get back to my dorm room, the girl is there. One look at me, and she keeps a safe distance. I tell her what happened. Blow-by-blow. My feelings of rage. Indignation. Violation.

After my tirade, I sit down on the bed. She cautiously approaches, and puts her hand on my back. Her comforting touch sends me over the top, and I start crying uncontrollably.

~~~

When I was young, I had a recurring dream. It’s nighttime in the dream. The moon is bright, and shining on the black ocean water. The waves are calm. I’m lying on my back, almost on top of the water. Beneath me are letters of the alphabet—big ones, pushing me up, keeping me from sinking into the ocean. I can’t make out the letters, but I’m certain they spell “America.”

In moments of darkness, when I think about the unfairness of life, I go back to the dream. I tell myself, “Quit feeling sorry for yourself. Suck it up. You are lucky to be alive, to live in this country.” And I also remind myself that I’m here for a reason. Thousands died trying to get here, but they didn’t die for nothing. They died so that I and others could live, and experience what they couldn’t—a life free from government oppression. The freedom to think what you want, say what’s on your mind, and be around whomever you choose.
Essentially, the freedom to be yourself. That’s what America represented to them. And that’s why they were willing to risk their lives to be free. I never fully understood it, until now.

The irony. Why can’t I, or any gay soldier, share in those freedoms? We’re willing to die to protect this great country. And to those who would deny us full citizenship—we’re also willing to die to defend your asses, your freedoms, and even your right to go to the ballot box or court to hoard those freedoms for yourselves, and not share them with us. And here’s the kicker. It’s a doozy. You also made the law so that we can never defend ourselves. Can never call you out on your selfishness. Can never lead full lives. Because if we dare to do so, you will take everything—years of blood, sweat, and tears—away from us. You’re freaking brilliant. Give yourselves a pat on the back for being such greedy bastards. And, for being so incredibly un-American.

I can’t live like this. No honor, integrity, or dignity. But whatever I do, this I know: I wasn’t saved from the ocean only to be swallowed by fear.

~~~

The girl holds me in her arms until I stop crying. Unprompted, she tells me, “I’ll do whatever you want me to do. If you want me to go back in the closet, I will do that.”
I don’t respond. I’m emotionally exhausted. Seeing this, she begins to sing a song from the musical, West Side Story:

There’s a place for us,
Somewhere a place for us.
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us
Somewhere.

. . .

There’s a place for us,
A time and place for us.
Hold my hand and we’re halfway there.
Hold my hand and I’ll take you there
Somehow,
Some day,
Somewhere.

Read Part One: Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way, Part Two: Light Bulb, Part Three: A New Identity, Part Four: The Education of Private Nguyen, Part Five: The Girl, and Park Six: No Air of Huong Nguyen’s diary blog series.


Part Six: No Air

November 4, 2010

By Huong Nguyen

Year: 1995

My American dream is turning into a nightmare.

I’m sitting in a major’s office, being grilled about an alleged “interpersonal problem” with a male cadet. A few days ago, that cadet and I had a knock-down, drag-out argument in front of the entire battalion. It was over his refusal to follow orders to prepare for a field training exercise. I couldn’t let his challenge of my authority go unchecked in front of everyone. But that’s insubordination, I thought, not an “interpersonal problem.”

You see, the cadet and I went on a few dates last year, until I called it off. He was simply—what’s the right word? Uninteresting? Bingo. I didn’t know exactly why, until now. Lately, he’s been acting strangely. Like, last weekend. The girl and I woke up to the sound of rocks thrown outside my dorm room. When I peeked out my window, it was him.

~~~

For the past several months, I tried to break it off numerous times with the girl. “You can’t be here. We can’t do this. OK, you can stay the night, but it has to stop tomorrow.” Each time, though, I inexplicably didn’t lock the proverbial closet door, and she marched in and hauled me back out. Persistent, that girl. Or maybe she sensed I didn’t really want her to leave.

We had no choice but to hide, and lie to everyone—friends, family, co-workers, strangers. While my dorm room was generally safe, the world outside was a minefield. Since I was constantly in uniform, and she was a known gay activist on campus, we had to devise ways to see each other, but not be seen with each other. Before going to classes in the morning, I would leave my room key for her in my mailbox. If she used the key to return to my dorm room before me, she wouldn’t open the door for anyone—except me, of course. We had a code—I would kick the bottom of the door three times so she would know it was me, and she would open it.

We also had other rules. Like no coming to or leaving my room at the same time, or using the same route. No public interactions, unless we were with our dormitory co-workers. And, in case someone inquired about the time we spent together, we made up stock stories about being somewhere else.

The deceit was thorough and necessary. But it also exacted a heavy price on both of us. Our grades suffered. Our emotional and spiritual well-being took a hit. And, most unfortunate, our relationships with others—especially close friends and loved ones—withered. How could we stay close to them, when we couldn’t share the most fundamental parts of our lives with them?

We were constantly looking behind us, literally and figuratively. One time, a cadet and I were studying in my room when he left with my key to fetch something from his room. Meanwhile, the girl came by for something else. I ushered her in, and completely forgot about the cadet and that he had the key. When the key hit the lock, she and I both looked at each other in utter terror. She quickly made some excuse about work, and left like the wind.

Another time, we snuck out for some dinner and were pretty proud of ourselves for doing so undetected. While in a dark parking lot, one of our co-workers came out of nowhere and surprised the heck out of us. We must’ve jumped a few feet in the air, and away from each other. We again told more stories to cover our tracks.

And, just a few days ago, I overslept my alarm clock, and was late for a field training exercise. A cadet was sent to my room, and the girl nearly opened the door for him. Her half-awake self, thankfully, remembered that she didn’t hear three kicks on the bottom of the door.

~~~

The major barks at me, “When did you first meet him? Have you spent time together outside the unit? Are you friends? Have you had sexual relations with each other?”

Sexual relations? Wait, I thought I was here because of the cadet’s insubordination. Why exactly are you interrogating me when he’s the one eff’ing stalking me? In your reptilian brain, this could only be a relationship gone sour.

“I’m not into dudes!” I want to yell at the major. To defend myself. To tell the truth. To stop hiding. To stop lying. To just … stop. But all I can do is sit, keeping my thoughts to myself.

Read Part One: Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way, Part Two: Light Bulb, Part Three: A New Identity, Part Four: The Education of Private Nguyen and Part Five: The Girl of Huong Nguyen’s diary blog series.


Part Five: The Girl

October 27, 2010

By Huong Nguyen

Year: 1995

Oh. My. God! The girl, she’s in my bed. How did this happen?

~~~

I first met her several months ago in 1994. We worked in the same dormitory— I, a resident assistant, she, a program assistant. She was shy and quiet, at least around me. I paid little attention to her, because we didn’t work directly together. Until one day, she rocked my world, literally.

She made an announcement at our weekly dormitory staff meeting. “Hi, everyone. We’re having a rally tomorrow to ask the university to address its non-discrimination policy and the presence of ROTC on campus, since ROTC doesn’t allow LGBT students to participate. So, please come out to support us and help end the ban on gays in the military.”

Holy crap! She’s leading the charge to kick ROTC off campus? All this time, why didn’t she tell me? Why didn’t anyone tell me? We all worked together for heaven’s sake. The staff knew I was in ROTC. It’s hard to miss, since I was constantly in uniform, even at these meetings. They also knew I wasn’t homophobic, either. How could I have been? Like, a third of the staff was queer.

This was eff’ing rich. We’re supposed to support all students on campus. Yet, when it came to ROTC students, screw them. Screw them all for the sake of equality. Screw me. And kids like me, who desperately needed this opportunity. And, who were willing to stand on the wall, to make the ultimate sacrifice, so y’all can have this right to protest —to screw us. The gratitude, it’s overwhelming. Of course, I told a much tamer version of my thoughts to the swarming TV reporters covering the anti-military rallies on campus. The ones led by the girl.

Several weeks after the announcement, I was going to wash my clothes one night. When I entered the laundry room, I saw the girl—and no one else.  “Just my luck,” I thought. She looked up and smiled at me. I responded with a weak smile and proceeded to load my clothes into the washing machine. “Are you doing anything fun this weekend?” she asked. I truly didn’t want to talk to her, but she was so disarming. And I didn’t wanna be impolite. To my surprise, we chatted for a long time about many things, except the pink elephant in the room.

What intrigued me, in a disconcerting way, was that she immediately saw through my exterior. The one I had cultivated for so long to protect myself. The badass, take-no-prisoner, I-can-kick-anyone’s-ass-with-my-pinky-or-die-trying persona. Of course, that was me. But she also saw my core— the lonely, abandoned 6-year-old who was looking for a home. No one had been able to do that before.

~~~

“Gotta go. I’m late to drill with my unit,” I tell the girl.

Immediately upon arriving, a captain slips a form under my nose. He explains, “The law is now called ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ The military can’t ask you whether you’re homosexual anymore, because being homosexual is not illegal. But signing this form ensures that you know that you still can’t commit homosexual conduct.” My panic only subsides when I realize that everyone is being asked to sign the same thing.

The new law is brilliant, I thought. I know I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed. But if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, isn’t it an eff’ing duck? How can you say that you have nothing against ducks, and at the same time ban all animals that look, act, and sound like ducks? What a pile of highbrow sophistry. In other words, cow dung.

But I have a more immediate problem: the girl.

Read Part One: Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way, Part Two: Light Bulb, Part Three: A New Identity, and Part Four: The Education of Private Nguyen of Huong Nguyen’s diary blog series.


Part Four: The Education of Private Nguyen

October 21, 2010

By Huong Nguyen

Year: 1994

“Gaydar? What’s that?”

They smile knowingly, my dormitory co-workers. “The camos and boots are part of my job. Look, I have long curly hair. I wear makeup, dresses, high heels. And, I’m engaged to marry a dude.” Now giggling, they claim gaydar is more than that—it detects an aura, a quality. I throw up my hands sarcastically, “Yup, that explains it all.”

We had just spent the entire afternoon learning about gay culture. The purpose of the class was to help clueless resident assistants, like me, recognize students who were coming out and support them through that process. Fine, glad to sit and listen. But it has no relevance to me, personally.

Or does it?

~~~

Strange things have happened the past couple years, though I haven’t tried to make sense of them. Deep thinking and processing of emotions would only weigh me down, distract me from my goals. That philosophy has worked wonderfully so far. Why change it now? Gotta just keep movin.’

Darn! My head is now spinning, trying to make connections. Like, last weekend. One of my male ROTC cadets and I were out at a club. This girl made a beeline toward us, while we were at the bar. I smiled at my friend, nudging him with my elbow and teasing him about what’s going to happen. She approached us, turned to me, and asked me to dance instead of him. “Me?” Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw my friend, laughing his butt off. Not to be impolite, I hesitantly accepted, but also grabbed my friend as a life raft on the dance floor with us.

And another time, during basic combat training, at an M-60 firing range. Most of us were sitting on bleachers, waiting for our turn, each wearing two long, heavy ammunition belts draped our shoulders. To pass the time, I chatted with this girl, while playing with one of the belts. The conversation started out friendly, but then she got surprisingly—ummm, what’s the right word? Flirtatious? Could you even use that word to describe something between two girls? Reacting nervously to the turn in conversation, I somehow hurt my hand on a belt. She quickly grabbed my hurt hand, held it between her hands, and began massaging it. Confused, I pulled my hand from hers, babbled some incoherent excuse, and walked away.

Strangest of all, though, was the time I was called into my unit commander’s office at the evacuation hospital where I was stationed. “Oh, crap,” I thought, “what did I do?” The commander, a lieutenant colonel—a man in his late forties, extremely well groomed, with a gentleness in his tone and manner unlike any other male soldier I knew— smiled, offered me a seat, and began some small talk. Welcoming me to the unit, apologizing that he hadn’t done so months before, asking whether I was enjoying myself. Something was terribly askew. He was an officer, and I was one of several hundred enlisted low-level grunts under his command. No one in his position should personally care about how I felt.

And then, a twilight-zone moment— he began gently grilling me about what the troops thought of him. This went on for about 10 minutes, until, finally satisfied that I knew nothing, he allowed me to leave. Once outside, I sat down on a bench and melted into a puddle of confusion. Why was he so abnormally concerned about what people thought about him? And why was he so trusting of what I thought?

~~~

Wait a minute. Have all these people’s gaydar-thing-a-ma-gigs been going off on me?

Read Part One: Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way, Part Two: Light Bulb, and Part Three: A New Identity of Huong Nguyen’s diary blog series.


Part Three: A New Identity

October 14, 2010

By Huong Nguyen

Year: 1994

How lucky am I? A little over two years ago, I was up a creek without a paddle. No money for school, no way to get out of town, no escape from my family dysfunction. Today, I’m living my American dream. The one I’ve been yearning for since leaving Vietnam for the land of opportunity. Of course, it’s not the rags-to-riches-Hollywood-movie kind. Or an awe-inspiring-Nobel-Peace-Prize kind. My dream is modest, like most. But the best part is that it’s entirely mine. Imagine a refugee of the American War becoming a soldier in the greatest military in the world. My American dream fulfilled — all because I joined the military. And that’s not hyperbole. At first, I joined to pay for school — now, I’m staying for entirely different reasons.

~~~

Days after high school graduation in 1992, I was on my way to Fort Lost in the Woods—also known as Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri—for basic combat training. A plane, a bus, and the world as I knew it all but disappeared.

The process by which civilians are turned into soldiers is called soldierization. The beginning stages involve pushing the body to submission, while simultaneously expelling all notion of individuality from the mind. Thereafter, the body heals stronger, and the mind is taught to prioritize nation, mission, and unit over self. It’s amazing how people—the vast majority of whom are impressionable young adults—can be pushed, pulled, and molded into fighting machines in such a short period of time, isolated from family and friends.

About a month into training, the process was nearly complete, at least for me. I was sitting with my fellow soldiers, waiting for hand grenade instruction to begin. A drill sergeant sauntered over, reached for a grenade, pulled out the pin, and tossed it on the ground in front of us. Without a thought, I threw myself on top of it. Breath held, eyes shut tight, body taut, adrenaline coursing through my veins— waiting.

Several seconds later, I realized it wasn’t going to explode and got off the ground, slowly. I looked down at my hands, shaking, and thought, “I did the right thing.”

By graduation, I had found my identity. All the scattered pieces of my former self coalesced into a new being, with a new way of living. I was no longer alone. I belonged to a community. I had a sense of purpose, a new ethos. The ceremony aptly ended with a song by Lee Greenwood, which made the entire class weep like babies.

“I’m proud to be an American where at least I know I’m free,
And I won’t forget the men who died who gave that right to me,
And I gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today,
‘Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land—God Bless the U.S.A.”

~~~

Now, in 1994, that feels like a lifetime ago. Life is good now. I’m engaged to a military brat I met at Advanced Individual Training in Fort Sam Houston, Texas. In addition to drilling with my Army National Guard unit as a combat medic one weekend a month, I’m also enrolled in the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps program and receiving scholarship funds from them to pay for tuition. I pay for room and board with a job as a resident assistant. And I have a plan for the next 20 years—attend medical school, become a military doctor, retire with full pension, open a medical clinic serving the poor, and maybe adopt a kid or three along the way.

Hello world, I’m a comin’, and (cue Hammer) “U Can’t Touch This!”

Read Part One: Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way and Part Two: Light Bulb of Huong Nguyen’s diary blog series.


Part Two: Light Bulb

October 7, 2010

By Huong Nguyen

Year: 1992

It’s my senior year of high school, and this Army recruiter comes on campus. He’s targeting jocks, so he says, and tells me that he could make my dreams come true. Yeah, right. But I was curious. That’s how I found myself sitting in his office, listening to his pitch.

“You could explore the world. Meet new people. Do exciting, honorable work. Develop discipline and confidence while you’re at it. And, we’d pay for your education.”

Unreal. What’s the catch?

~~~

I was 6 when I landed in Green Bay, Wisconsin in 1979. It was the dead of winter. First thing a man—who I assumed was my dad—did was wrap a coat around me. He held me, as we walked through the airport, making our way past a line of lights and TV cameras. I didn’t know what the fuss was all about.

Later, I guessed it had something to do with the church that helped get us here. You see, the mass exodus from Vietnam became a humanitarian crisis. In response, many countries volunteered to absorb the so-called “boat people.” In the United States, communities of faith, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, mobilized and were instrumental in helping resettle families like mine.

Growing up in Green Bay was isolating. The homogeneity, stark. Like the snow. Kids often teased me about my appearance.

“Hey, chink, where ya goin’?”

I’m Vietnamese, not Chinese, dumbass.

“So? Whaddya gonna do ’bout it?”

Lesson: Kids learn fast. After a while, they kept their comments to themselves or risked being pummeled by an insanely pissed off “chink,” “colored girl,” “gook.”

The language barrier was remarkably high. At the time, Green Bay didn’t have school programs such as English as a Second Language. These programs didn’t make economic sense, with so few foreigners. Instead, they put me in remedial classes. What native speakers fail to understand is how hard English really is. Like, why make so many exceptions that swallow the rule? And, why pronounce the same words differently, and different words the same? (Read/read, and read/red.) I recall thinking: “Heavens, I’m not slow. English just makes little sense.”

And home life. Well, that’s complicated. Dad escaped hell, but life in America was no paradise. Imagine starting over in a new land, with a new culture and language. Parenting, alone, three girls whom who you barely know. And likely suffering some kind of psychological trauma from your previous experiences in the American War (as Vietnamese folks call it), “re-education” camps, and journey to the United States. Under those circumstances, who among us wouldn’t take to the bottle? And take, he did, with gusto.

As a latch-key kid, the TV was my babysitter, teacher, and companion. I’d come home from school, make myself food, and turn on the tube until the Johnny Carson Show came on. That’s how I learned about American culture—and accumulated so many useless trivia about ’80s TV shows and music videos. One commercial stood out from the rest, though. It was for the Army. The jingle was ridiculously contagious: “Be/All you can/Be.”

~~~

That jingle is going through my head as I page through the enlistment papers. Wait, what does the fine print say? I can’t be homosexual. Whatevs. I’m not.

“Signed, sealed, delivered, oh yeah!”

Read Part One: Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way of Huong Nguyen’s diary blog series.


Highly Decorated Combat Air Force Aviator Files Injunction in Federal Court

August 12, 2010

from Servicemembers Legal Defense Network

Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) and Morrison & Foerster LLP filed a request for a temporary restraining order today on behalf of their client, Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach, seeking to block the Air Force from discharging him under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), the discriminatory law barring gay and lesbian service members from serving openly and honestly. The filing in the United States District Court for the District of Idaho, seeks a court order preventing the Air Force from discharging Lt. Col. Fehrenbach, arguing that the government cannot establish that his continued service on active duty hinders “morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion.”

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