GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
Our next story can be hard to hear. We know that monsters exist and that the world can be unfair. We know this. But for some crimes, it can feel like the victim has to suffer twice. Due to the nature of the crime referenced in this story, it may be inappropriate for young children and sensitive listeners are advised. SNAP JUDGMENT's Stephanie Foo has the story.
STEPHANIE FOO, BYLINE: Kole Welsch always knew he was gay. And growing up in a small conservative town, being gay was not easy. His parents were planning to send him to a religious conversion camp and so as soon as he turned 17, he ran away.
KOLE WELSCH: I joined the military. The circus wasn't taking applications and it was the best way to kind of get out of town.
FOO: Yeah, the military. And though the military didn't have the best track record for gay rights, he thought it was better than his situation.
WELSCH: I didn't think that my sexual orientation would be relevant to my service. I thought that if I worked hard, there wouldn't be any issues. I was probably one of the youngest people in the military at the time that I joined. I was just - had turned 17 and kind of had to work my way up from there.
FOO: And the military wound up being the place where Kole found the acceptance he'd been searching for. First, there was a very tight-knit gay community there and secondly, he found he could be judged on the merit of his performance.
WELSCH: I went to intelligence school. We deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom II. I served as an interrogations analyst at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison.
FOO: Kole won multiple awards during his tour and did so well that he got a special ROTC scholarship to finish his undergraduate degree and train to become an officer. That's when he met Kevin.
KEVIN WELSCH: We kind of hit it off right from the go. He was a really great guy. He was stunning, he was a gorgeous Latino man.
WELSCH: I liked his confidence, his quietness. We'd hang out in his barracks and were inseparable after about the first week that we met.
FOO: One of the men in the gay community was a staff sergeant who seemed like a pretty cool guy. Kevin and Kole went to his house to hang out.
WELSCH: We went over to play some Xbox or video games, have a couple beers and basically those beers were - they were a little too strong.
FOO: After just one beer, Kevin and Kole found themselves incapacitated.
WELSCH: After just like one. What happened next was Kevin and I were violently sexually assaulted. We got out of there as soon as we were mentally able to. We basically said, oh my God, this guy is a monster. What do we do? And, you know, the military is a very insular institution, so what are you going to do if, you know, it you're trying not to rock the boat? The first thing you do is you sweep everything under the rug and try not to make a complaint about it.
FOO: Kole wasn't going to let one tragedy ruin his life. He was going to be an officer, so he kept working hard and tried to put it behind him. One day, Kole was named the captain of an ROTC training exercise - a huge achievement.
WELSCH: That was the pinnacle of my career of five years of effort up to that point.
FOO: After the exercise, his commanders wanted to speak to him. He thought he was going to get a glowing review, but that wasn't it. Instead, they wanted to talk to him about his latest physical.
WELSCH: I got called into a room with a bunch of officers and told, you have HIV.
FOO: The result of his physical showed that he was HIV-positive. That meant he was no longer eligible to serve or to receive any health benefits.
WELSCH: That ended my military career and I got sent home. I was dazed at first. I was disbelief - what did I do? How could this happen? And then I vomited.
FOO: Kole's partner Kevin was tested as well. He was also positive. At first, Kole didn't understand how they contracted the disease. But slowly, they began to see a pattern. One after another, acquaintances of the staff sergeant all began to receive positive HIV diagnoses, so Kole figured it out.
WELSCH: The assailant was going out and raping young men and intentionally giving them HIV.
FOO: It turned out that because the staff sergeant was active duty, even though he was HIV-positive, he had been allowed to stay in the military but he was transferred to a desk job where he would never see action. Epidemiologists traced the men's sexual partners and confirmed Kole's suspicions. The staff sergeant was the one spreading the disease.
WELSCH: The epidemiologist at Ft. Lewis recommended that we make a report to CID - Criminal Investigative Division. Unfortunately, that was a dead end. The CID said, well, because this happened off of base, we don't have jurisdiction. I went to office after office. I left messages at the commanding generals. I did everything possible to work within the system in order to get this guy from assaulting more people. I realized that the military wasn't going to do anything. I feel they were perfectly fine with letting this person assault and infect other people with HIV. This is the real result of Don't Ask, Don't Tell is that it a created a situation where people could be assaulted and everyone was afraid to talk about it. This went on for two years. You know, knowing the truth and having like no one listen to you, I was very lucky to have my partner. Kevin basically kept me sane.
FOO: Kevin and Kole got married and they supported each other through everything. After two years when Kole's attacker still remained on the loose, he went to the local police.
WELSCH: Kevin and I went to the Pierce County prosecutor. The police did an investigation and the assailant ended up pleading guilty to what he was doing.
FOO: The assailant received a 5-year sentence.
WELSCH: And he's still in jail in a Washington state correctional facility. When the assailant was arrested and stopped, you know, I'd been asked before, well, did you feel good that the jerk was finally put away and he would get some justice? And to me, the answer is an unequivocal no. I don't think that this person started off as being a bad guy. In my opinion, the assailant was an insane person. The assailant was in an environment that stigmatized him for being gay and stigmatized him for having HIV. You know, some people say, well, it should just be blamed on him, it's his responsibility. That opinion doesn't hold water with me. I think that the U.S. military through its absolute negligence created a monster. I hold them responsible.
When it comes to empathizing with the assailant, I know how much the stigma that I faced affected me. What happened to us was so traumatic, it literally damaged my mind. I wasn't able to concentrate, I felt scattered. I have a tremor in my hands now. It took me a long time to come back from that. It took years of therapy. I just kept trying, I just kept trying and I wouldn't give up. After multiple years of effort, you know, it became easier
FOO: And though Kole may empathize with his attacker, he and Kevin don't even want to think about his name anymore.
WELSCH: I have no interest in contacting the assailant whatsoever. I have no interest in dealing with the military any further. I have moved on.
FOO: They have bigger things to worry about now.
WELSCH: We found out on New Year's Eve that our surrogate was in fact pregnant and Kevin and I now have a baby on the way. We're not stuck. We're not stuck. We're moving on.
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WASHINGTON: Thanks so much to Kole for being so brave to share his story. Kole is now going to law school and attempting to change the military's policy on soldiers who are HIV-positive. Kevin is studying to become an AIDS researcher and the two of them want to give a shout out to the University of Washington for providing them with HIV care. That piece was produced by Stephanie Foo.
You're listening to SNAP JUDGMENT, the "Suspicious Behavior" episode. We'll be right back after the break.
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