President Barack Obama signed the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Repeal Act bill into law on December 22, 2010. Though official repeal then remained on the horizon, that day marked the beginning of a new era for the American military. I sat in the audience that day as a representative of OutServe and as an active duty gay Air Force officer directly affected by the policy. It was thrilling to celebrate this hard victory alongside other advocates, but I also knew that despite the leap forward there remained a tremendous amount of work to be done. For eighteen years, the policy had effectually silenced an entire military population. The ways in which 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' had poisoned military culture remained untold.
I knew the negative effects of this silence first hand. As a brand new officer at training school, I was blackmailed by an instructor who knew my orientation, but under 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' I had no real outlet to stop this abuse. It was this experience that pushed me to found OutServe, along with one of my closest civilian friends, Ty Walrod. The organization began small. In November of 2009 my friends and colleagues, outraged by what had happened to me, formed a Facebook group and website entitled "Citizens for Repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.'" Soon the page was gaining hundreds of followers daily. I knew that there were thousands of active-duty LGBT service members who would benefit from having a support network, but this was proof. We moved quickly to create an underground social networking site for active-duty LGBT service members. Until the formation of OutServe, there had been no safe way to create an organized LGBT community in the military. The risk of exposure was far too great. By providing identity security we were able to create a safe space where active duty could openly form friendships and voice concerns. To date, OutServe has successfully connected over 3,900 LGBT military personnel around the world.
Our Time is our story of our military experience under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." The individuals you will meet in these pages served in silence. They were required to withhold an integral part of themselves from their colleagues. They could not freely share their love for their families, or their dreams for the future. They had no protection when individuals used the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy to blackmail and harass. Though as active duty service members themselves know, the silence of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was already beginning to break. The stories here are testament to the remarkable friendships that form between Soldiers, relationships of respect and affection that transcend prejudice and prove just how very outdated and bankrupt the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy was.
Throughout Our Time, you will note time and time again one word: integrity. This concept is a cornerstone of military education and tradition, it is a value we are taught to aspire to and to uphold. And yet, 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' denied integrity to each and every LGBT service member. Every day these individuals were faced with the deep, wounding conflict: to be true to themselves, or true their country. The pain of that choice is felt in almost every story included here.
I reached out to contributors during the period after the repeal act was signed, but before "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" had officially ended. Sharing their stories during this uncertain moment was an act of bravery, and I thank each contributor for their work toward helping those outside the military understand just how damaging and far-reaching the effects of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" were. Their courage in service of this book, however, is nothing compared to the courage and self-sacrifice our country required of every LGB Soldier that served under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." I also want to give special thanks to the straight active duty and family members who shared their experiences, and to the military personnel that served during the early years of the policy. Their words remind us of how far we have come.
Looking forward, there are new challenges we must confront. Many foreign militaries have long allowed gay servicemembers to serve openly, yet many are still afraid to come out of the closet. In order to ensure that does not happen here in America, gay troops must lead. This means creating a visible, respectful LGBT military community. There are battles left to fight. Our marriages are still not recognized by the government and military families will be torn apart because they can not seek joint military assignments. We must also not forget our transgender brothers and sisters who still cannot serve openly.
When servicemembers sent me their stories, they would often thank me for the opportunity to contribute. They told me that there was a certain vindication in writing their story on paper and knowing it was going to be read. The human narrative is a powerful tool. It was the courage of previous gay servicemembers stories that motivated the nation to change this policy and it's these stories that will help the pain of the last few decades of discrimination heal.
One story in particular speaks to the spirit of unity and trust within the military. Cpl. Andrew Wilfahrt, a gay soldier, was killed by a roadside bomb while serving in Afghanistan. Lori and Jeff Wilfahrt, Andrew's parents, had the courage to go on camera and tell the story of their son and how he was treated in his unit. His mother proudly stated everyone in his unit knew he was gay and nobody cared. Andrew's later father shared a letter with me that he had received from his son's Army unit still deployed in Afghanistan. Andrew's comrades decided to name their combat outpost after him. Those soldiers didn't need months training or a Power Point presentation to learn respect of their fallen gay comrade. They respected Andrew because he had their back. Corporal Wilfahrt's unit embodies the very best of military culture: no matter whether gay or straight we are in this fight together.
These soldiers are an example for service in the post-'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' military. They are a reminder that respect and professionalism is already a part of our culture. What we need now is leadership. Gay servicemembers must lead from the front openly and straight colleagues must help create an atmosphere of acceptance and respect. This is the message that the men and women who contributed to this book are sending with their stories. It's now our time.
Excerpted from Our Time: Breaking the Silence of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" by Josh Seefried, to be published October 13, 2011 by The Penguin Press. All rights reserved.