Home Social Issues An open letter to my Senator on Memorial Day

An open letter to my Senator on Memorial Day


( – promoted by lowkell)

Sen. Webb,

It is appropriate to address you on this, Memorial Day.  I honor your military service, which has made you one of the most admired Marines of recent generations.  I know that today you will honor others, doing as you do each year on this day, visiting Arlington without the presence of press, even when you were running for the Senate.  You wish to honor those who served.

So do I.  I wish to honor all of them.  Which is why I address this letter to you.

I know you are no homophobe – I have seen you accept the endorsement of Partisans, the largest Virginia gay political group.  I have heard you oppose the Virginia Constituional amendment limiting marriage to one man and one woman, with you saying government stays outside your door unless it has a damn good reason to come in – that applies to how you pray, who you sleep with and your guns.

Since you are no homophobe, I think it is time for you to change your position on DADT.  I want to remind you of our very first conversation.

I want to remind you of Al Gray.

You had just decided to run in the Democratic primary against Harris Miller for what most pundits felt was a suicide mission against George Allen.  Lee Diamond brought you to perhaps your first public event, a meet and greet at Democracy for America at Attila’s in the Courthouse section of Arlington, just up the road from your headquarters on Wilson Boulevard.   During the Q&A we had had a lively exchange on education, so you had some idea of who I was.  

One of the last questions was on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  The man who asked it, Richard, is gay.  He would later become one of your strongest supporters, as I found out when Saturday morning after Saturday morning he and I manned a booth at the main Farmer’s Market in Courthouse.  But that day you enraged him when you said you supported DADT, and gave reasons why that are similar to those you offer today.

Immediately after the event I followed you outside to talk with you.  I introduced myself as a former Marine and you responded “Semper Fi!”  

I told you that when I had mentioned to Larry Korb, who had served as an assistant Secretary of Defense overlapping your own service in the Reagan Defense Department, that Randy Shilts had in his book on aids, And the Band Played On, mentioned that one member of the Joint Chiefs had been gay, Korb had told me that the person was Al Gray, Commandant of the Marine Corps.

You look straight at me and said “I know. I nominated him.  There was blood on the floor to get him confirmed, but he was the best man for the job.”

I remember going back in and reporting our conversation to Richard, who was seething.  

Anyone who paid attention while serving knew men – and women – who were gay.  Admiral McMullen has talked about it.  I remember both in my boot camp platoon of 75 and in my company at Quantico which included both units in which I served, the Post Band and the Data Processing unit, at least two who most of us realized were gay.  They could not openly admit it then and avoid discharge.  It is shameful that even today the same applies, despite the fact that many of our military allies allow open service by gay personnel:  among the other 27 NATO members those nations include Belgium, Canada,Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, and the UK.  Our service personnel can be in joint units with openly gay personnel from this nations.  They could have a commander in their chain of command who is not only openly gay, but in a legal gay marriage.  

Al Gray is considered one of the great Marines.  Some argue that the changes he made while Commandant have greatly contributed to the success the Corps has had in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

Al Gray went from private to 4-star General and Commandant.

He is the only Commandant to have his official picture taken wearing his utilities, as a reminder that the first duty of every Marine – even including piano players like me – is to be a rifleman.

There is no doubt of his valor, since his combat directions include the Purple Heart, the Silver Star, and the Bronze Star with V and three awards stars.  For his outstanding leadership he received the Defense Distinguished Service Medal – the highest peacetime award – as well as the Distinguished Service Medals of the Navy, the Army, the Air Force, and the Coast Guard.

You were right – he was the best man for the job when you nominated him, knowing he was gay.  And those who opposed his nomination knew he was gay, which is why, as you put it to me back in 2006, there was blood on the floor to get him confirmed.

If Al Gray could serve as Commandant, with distinction, if he could serve in combat situations both in Korea and Vietnam, all while being a gay man, is there any logical reason now that were he to openly admit he was gay that he be required to be discharged, even were he a four-star?  That is what you are supporting when you continue to oppose moving forward with Congress overturning DADT.  That is what you are supporting when you insist that the military chain of command should allow officers lower than the top military commander in that chain, Admiral McMullen, and the civilian leadership in Secretary Gates, to oppose and undercut the policy they wish to implement, a policy the President wishes to implement, a policy supported by almost 4 out of every 5 Americans.

Forget all the statistics.  I want you to imagine you are still Secretary of the Navy.  You have the opportunity to nominate an Al Gray as Commandant.  You know that people know he is gay, even if he is not “out.”  Under DADT someone who opposes that appointment could challenge him directly in public, forcing the General to choose between his career – which MUST end if he answered yes to the challenge – and his honor not to lie.  It would be wrong for a superior officer to ask under DADT, but members of the Senate Armed Forces Committee are not bound by that law, or by the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  Could you, under DADT, get an Al Gray confirmed today as Commandant?  I think not.  And if I am right, would not not deprive our beloved Corps of the leadership it deserves, from what you rightly described as the best man for the job?

I have current and former students who consider entering the military.  Some knowing I served in the Marines sometimes ask me what I think.   If they are gay – and some are –  what should I tell them, that they have to live a lie and deny a part of themselves in order to serve their country?  What if one of them could be the next Al Gray?

Barry Goldwater served with distinction in the US Military, retiring from the Air Force Reserves as a Command Pilot with the rank of Major General.  He was co-author of the bill which reorganized the military.  He supported gay rights in the military, perhaps in part because of his own gay grandchild, saying You don’t have to be straight to be in the military; you just have to be able to shoot straight.

Leonard Matlovich challenges us with the epitaph on his tombstone, here in Washington DC, in Congressional Cemetary:  under the heading “A GAY VIETNAM VETERAN” we read these word:  WHEN I WAS IN THE MILITARY THEY GAVE ME A MEDAL FOR KILLING TWO MEN AND A DISCHARGE FOR LOVING ONE.

On this Memorial Day, I honor ALL those willing to serve this nation.  

They may be black like Henry Flipper, the first black to graduate from West Point was treated horribly because of his color, both at the Point and during his service.

They may be Muslim, like the young man whose gravestone and mother appeared in a powerful picture in a news magazine, a photo referenced by Colin Powell, who now himself supports doing away with DADT.

They may have been in the US, enlisting in the military to gain citizenship of a nation they love.  There was one such in my boot platoon in Parris Island in 1965.

And they may be gay.  Like Leonard Matlovich.  Like Al Gray.

It is time to fully accept all those qualified willing to serve our nation.

Like Al Gray.

Peace – on this day, and hopefully for those who serve as well.

Kenneth J. Bernstein

Private First Class


MOS 5575 Bandsman Piano Player

Serial Number 2105714

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