Skip to comments.Back From the Front, With Honor, a Warrior's Truth
Posted on 02/12/2005 3:52:18 PM PST by NYC GOP Chick
By HELEN GERHARDT
OHN was a love child, conceived on the driver's seat of my rusty old Volvo as I sped toward my National Guard headquarters in March of 2002. I was aglow with unexpected discovery, my body flush from hours of cuddling skin to skin with my newly beloved.
But I had lingered too long and now was pushing the speedometer toward 90 in a 70 mile-an-hour zone, trying desperately to get to the armory in time for morning formation. I was speeding toward what I knew would be a very slow day: probably an apathetic rehash of gas mask maintenance, maybe a quick check under the hoods of our seldom-used trucks and most certainly a cud-chewing on the latest rumors of our possible deployment to the War on Terror.
When I rushed into formation, a minute late and shining with happiness, Sergeant Bryan twisted around, looked me up and down and winked. "Guy wouldn't let you go, huh?"
I smiled back. Why disabuse him of that notion?
But as soon as formation broke, a small clump of my fellow soldiers gathered to tease me and pursue details of the scoop. I hadn't dated anyone since I joined the company two years before, soon after the end of my 12-year marriage to a man I still cared for, if I couldn't live with him. A couple of guys in the unit had manfully tried to rectify my lack of companionship, flirting with me, asking me out, and my ham-handed response to their attempts had raised a few eyebrows and fueled speculation about my sexual orientation that was not spoken to me but that I could read clearly on several faces. Of course they were wrong, I'd thought. They just weren't taking into account the complexities of a bruised heart.
Sergeant Durk grinned up at me from his pink pug face. "Is it lust, girl, or is it love?"
"Come on," Sergeant Bryan demanded. "Details, details - who is he?"
I looked back at Sergeant Bryan with affection. He had so innocently asked, but I could not tell. And it was killing me, the fact that I had to keep all those glorious, life-changing details of my new love hemmed in and humming between my ears. I wanted to tell the world about it. I certainly didn't see how it was possible to spend eight long hours pretending it was just another drill day.
"I see," Sergeant Bryan said. "Gonna hold out on your redneck Army buddies?"
The alias I'd thought of on the way to the armory trembled at the edge of my lips. And then it tumbled out. "Well..." I began.
And so John was born, breaking records for growth as he sprang from my head with all the reflective glow of a newly polished shield and armed with all the sharp edges of my fresh memory. "He's a little tubby, just turned 40, salt-and pepper hair cut mighty short. He's finishing his doctorate. He's going to be applying for teaching jobs next year. Yes, he's in English too. We met in class."
The story poured out with such confidence - it was the truth, after all, except for one small inconvenient fact. But how great it felt to besottedly report the relevant details of my unexpected love, to regale my fellow soldiers with tales of my man, who was only a slight twist of the helix and the tongue away from the whole truth.
John at first seemed to be a low-maintenance guy. Put away with my uniform, and quickly brushed to a shine along with my black boots once a month, he always sprang to duty with military efficiency.
But as the year wore on, my act began to take its toll. Early on I had excused John's absences at Guard socials by proudly declaring how devoted he was to his studies. But that line wore thin as my fellow soldiers' spouses, boyfriends and girlfriends continued to show up by their sides while I, yet again, attended solo.
"Yeah, well, John's definitely a workaholic," I complained with an anger that felt disturbingly authentic. When my real love and I began to plot a discreet co-habitation, I tried to allay any suspicion that my lover's voice might raise if Guard members were to call my home by explaining that John wanted to save money by moving in with my "roommate" and me. But finally, when we got the news of our deployment to Iraq, I felt as if my wall of deception was about to collapse.
My true love began to campaign for John's elimination with editorial ruthlessness: "Kill him off now! This is the perfect time."
"But I've been talking about our engagement. We were looking at rings last month."
"Everybody knows deployments change things. With such a long separation coming up, maybe he thought it would be wiser to wait rather than act hastily."
As usual, my lover's practicality was inarguable, and over the next few months I laid down a back story for the coming virtual breakup. As other guardsmen swore the undying love of their own lovers and spouses, I indicated that no, John certainly wasn't thrilled by the prospect of my yearlong deployment in Iraq. "And he's been offered a job in Texas," I added. "We don't see how he can turn it down with the job market like this."
I had friends and family who wondered very loudly why I didn't just come out and tell the truth rather than so carefully script John's exit. After all, why not take the opportunity to let the truth get me off what could be a truly deadly hook?
But I couldn't do that. When I joined the Army in 2000 I had never anticipated any future need to censor my life, had never imagined the flesh and blood form in which my true love would one day appear. I had raised my hand and sworn the military oath to redeem a decade of debt, to escape the years of assembly lines, waitress aprons and janitor buckets that had kept me afloat. Thanks to the Army, I had just received a degree in English, and for this I was grateful.
Like my country, teetering on the edge of a war with unknowable costs, I had decided to borrow now and pay later. As I saw it, I owed for what I had received, and it would be a sniveling, wimpy misuse of my love to back out just when the bill was due to my country and the men and women I served with. I did not really buy the bill of goods they'd sold everyone to star-and-spangle our reasons for pre-emptive invasion, but I had sworn to obey my commander in chief.
So while I told my worried friends and family that I would not bear the fictional burden of John to Iraq for my fellow soldiers to innocently pry at, I would have to remain silent about who I was for the duration of my overseas service.
In February 2003, as my unit gathered in the freezing gray dawn to get on the bus to the predeployment processing camp, I broke my carefully planned news to the sergeant I respected the most.
"So, will John be there to see you off next month?" Sergeant Collum asked.
"No," I said. "He went ahead and took the job in Texas. We decided we had to see what happens when all this is over."
He did not look surprised. Unlike others in my unit, he'd never asked why John didn't show up for our group celebrations. I knew he was a savvy man, but I could not know what he guessed of my real situation - if his restraint had served a willed ignorance or a respectful tact.
SUDDENLY it occurred to me that my deception had worked two ways. The falsehoods I'd spread to keep my fellow soldiers from knowing the real me were at the same time preventing me from knowing the real them. I could now see that during the time I'd been covering for myself, I'd stood increasingly apart from my unit and my superior officers - friendly, but not a friend.
And in a few months we all would be in a war zone together. Over the coming year I would convoy thousands of miles with Sergeant Collum and the other members of our transportation unit, past deteriorating mosques, begging Iraqi children and roadside explosives. I could never have guessed that the loneliness of maintaining my silence with him and others I cared about would be harder to bear than being shot at or bombed.
Now Sergeant Collum looked at me. "It won't work out for a lot of these guys," he said quietly. "They think it will, but it won't."
A month later, as new recruits marched by our predeployment barracks singing songs of home and lost loves, I sat down and wrote to my man for the first time. We'd been told that for security reasons, all of our correspondence would be subject to inspection, and I sort of hoped that would be the case here, that my letter could serve as a final flourish to end the illusion.
"Dear John," I wrote, "I'm afraid we can't go on like this." And just like that it was over. Or so I thought.
Now it is 2005, and I have done my time in the wilderness. For 12 months I hauled your ammunition and guns, your concrete barriers and your charred Humvees that no thickness of back story could armor for the flesh within. I served honorably, remained faithful to my true love and to my country, and I came back in one piece, with even my silence intact.
But in the wake of all these deceptions, small and large, innocent and deadly, my ongoing silence eventually became its own burdensome lie - one that I simply could no longer bear.
So that is my truth, or at least the best I could do under the circumstances. I know you didn't ask. I had to tell anyway. The fact is, I would very much like to continue to serve as my true self. I hope you'll understand.
Sgt. Helen Gerhardt returned from Iraq in July and now serves in a transportation unit of the Missouri Army National Guard.
No photos -- you can thank me later.
Does anyone know what this was all about? It certainly was egocentric--but was there a point here that I missed, other than she fictionalized a lover to avoid the don't ask, don't tell regulations.
Even in the story, you had to read very carefully to pick up the signals.
Dumbest coming out story ever.
A lesbian activist's "truth".
The Volvo was a dead giveaway right from the start.
"Don't ask, don't tell," because it's not necessary.
Ohhh, I see the point of the story (I think).
You didn't direct your "photo" comment to me, but I'd like to thank you for not posting it.
Apparently thr hardest part (for the liberal or gay liberal) is... Don't ask.
oops... thr should be: the
Only the New York Times could come up with a story like this. This woman should be given a no-prejudice discharge on grounds of mental incompetance.
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