Capt. Rawlings Takes Questions from Sadr City A 26-year-old Princeton alum offers his take on the reality of the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy, the struggle for unity in Iraq and whether one can be patriotic and disagree with the military. He will be taking questions and sending updates throughout the coming months.
NPR logo Capt. Rawlings Takes Questions from Sadr City

Capt. Rawlings Takes Questions from Sadr City

Capt. Nate Rawlings planned to be applying for film school right now. Instead, he's back in Iraq. Whitney Terrell for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Whitney Terrell for NPR

Capt. Rawlings Takes Your Questions

Send your inquiries through this form.

More from Capt. Rawlings

Capt. Nate Rawlings, 26, recently returned to Iraq for his second tour of duty. Throughout the next few months, he will be answering questions about his experience as well as sending us updates on his life. (Send your questions through this form).

Question One: What does the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy mean on a daily basis?

Question Two: Can the Sunnis and Shiites ever find common ground?

Question Three: Can I be a patriot, while still questioning involvement in Iraq?

Question Four: If one has a different military specialty, does one still have to serve on the front lines?

Question Five: Can I serve, but avoid going to Iraq?

Question Six: How long before Iraq can stand on its own feet?

Question One: What does the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy mean on a daily basis?

Hello Capt. Rawlings,

First, thank you so much for your service and dedication to our country. I am inspired by you and every other soldier out there providing the action needed to back up our words on the world stage.

My question is this: I am a gay man, and considering joining the military. I know that no one is supposed to "ask" me about my sexuality, and I am not supposed to "tell," but how does that really work on a day-to-day basis?

One of the main things that appeals to me about military service is the deep and lasting bonds that are formed. I wonder, though, how close I can really become with other people in the military, when I have to be continually secretive about an integral part of my identity. And how can I trust someone with my life, when I can't trust them not to force me out of the military if I accidentally slip up and reveal the truth about myself?

I really want to serve my country, but I am afraid that my country may say "no thanks" to the offer.

There must be numerous gay men and women serving in the military currently. In your experience, is it a fact that is generally known about certain people and just not talked about, or are they forced to keep it completely hidden?

Thank you,

Joseph Smith, New York

Dear Mr. Smith,

I think this is an extremely important question and I thank you for having the courage to ask. You are correct; the military's current policy on homosexual acts in the service is known as "Don't Ask Don't Tell." The policy was implemented in 1993 by the first Clinton administration, and the actual language of the law states:

"Sexual orientation will not be a bar to service unless manifested by homosexual conduct. The military will discharge members who engage in homosexual conduct, which is defined as a homosexual act, a statement that the member is homosexual or bisexual, or a marriage or attempted marriage to someone of the same gender."

Basically, what that boils down to is that you cannot be barred from service in the military because of your sexual orientation, but yes, you will have to keep it a secret and cannot act on that orientation. You are protected to a degree, in that, if I was your commander, I could not ask you about your sexual orientation and you are under no obligation to disclose that orientation. So, on a basic level, if you want to serve in the military the military cannot say "no thanks" unless you are caught in homosexual conduct.

The second part of the question leads me to believe that you want to join the military for the right reasons. In addition to the desire to serve your country, you seek what many of us sought, the bonds of deep friendship that often come from military service. In my experience, the relationships between members of a platoon or a squad are much deeper than their debates about the most attractive Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue model.

The relationships between soldiers begin as the result of common suffering in basic training, schools and field training where the troops brave cold, rain, homesickness and exhausting work to accomplish a common goal. I have seen these relationships take on a much more important meaning in combat because, in addition to sharing the burden of labor or suffering, each member of the platoon has an unspoken (or sometimes spoken) understanding that he will fight, and if necessary, die for the others in his platoon. I literally owe my life to two amazing young men from my Bradley crew who risked their lives for me because they knew I would risk my life for them. If you do join the military and first work hard to be a good team member and then take on the responsibility of fighting and perhaps dying for the other members of your platoon, they will see that as far more important than anything else.

In terms of how "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" works in the day-to-day military, the answer is — I do not know. Any member of my team or the company I am in could be gay, but I do not know that and, personally, I do not care. What I do know is that I would fight for and die for any of my men and I know that they would do the same for me. If you are willing to do the same for the soldiers you will serve with, then pursue military service. I cannot say that it will be easy keeping your sexual orientation a secret, but if you are willing to abide by the policy, I think you will find a lot of rewards from military service.

Question Two: Can the Sunnis and Shiites ever find common ground?

Dear Capt. Rawlings,

First and foremost a gracious and heart-filled thank you to you for serving our country. My question comes from years of observation — the Middle East has been in turmoil for thousands of years. It has always been beyond my comprehension as to why one of the most religious places on Earth was always for one reason or another fighting and killing each other over religious differences. The Sunnis, the Shiites — their differences are what? Now I know you can give me a list, I know you can give me the history but quite frankly what's the point? If the differences only result in the two groups hurting each other how in the world are you going to find common ground for these guys to live in peace? If they really wanted peace they would work together and find it, but it seems that the majority only want revenge and vengeance. If they don't want to seek it in their hearts, then how are our efforts going to get the Iraqi population to get along?

Thank you so much for your service. I grew up overseas in a Navy family; I understand and appreciate the military service.

Thank you,

Martha Chase, Portsmouth, N.H.

Dear Ms. Chase,

Thank you very much for your question. Wow, this is one we could discuss and debate for days! You are correct that the Sunni-Shia conflict is a massively complex and historic problem dating back to the death of Muhammad in A.D. 632. This conflict is woven into the history of the region ever since, but on the ground level, the issues are much more personal. Before we shipped out both times, I read to my soldiers the epigraph from Tom Friedman's fantastic book From Beirut to Jerusalem. Friedman wrote about the Israeli-Arab conflicts, but he puts them in context by quoting The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn where a man is explaining to Huck and Jim the various "rows" between families. After the man explains all he knows about the conflict, Huck asks how it all started and gets the response:

"Oh yes, Pa knows, I reckon, and some of the other old people; but they don't know now what the row was about in the first place."

I love this quote because it exemplifies a lot of what we have seen at the local level here in Iraq. Often here, families and tribes have feuds within the larger Sunni-Shiite conflict, but the feuds are the result of something small, such as stolen livestock several generations back, or the theft of land in the late 18th century. When the sectarian violence was at its worst in late 2006, we were finding bodies nearly every day in areas of high sectarian tension. One of the great reliefs of this tour so far is that the people in our area seem to have figured out that the cycle of violence will never cease until both sides agree to put aside their differences, be they religious, political or family related, and try to live in the same place. I think that in the end, many people simply got sick and tired of having their family members murdered for an inherited conflict where they never really knew how it began. While the situation is by no means solved, it is much better now than two years ago.

Question Three: Can I be a patriot, while still questioning involvement in Iraq?

Capt. Rawlings,

Do you believe that someone in America can love their country and support our troops, but still feel it necessary to put a stop to this interference in another land? As a veteran of Vietnam, I see us repeating the mistakes of the past. Only this time, on an even less reasonable basis.

I support you and the rest of our troops, but I feel you are but a pawn in a very nasty game.

I wish you well and a safe return home!

Rick Dawe, Hastings, Mich.

Dear Mr. Dawe,

Thank you very much for your question and for your service during Vietnam. From conversations with my uncle, who served in the 7th Cavalry Regiment in 1966, and with many other Vietnam veterans, the return home was especially difficult as those who opposed the war often targeted their opposition on those of you returning from Southeast Asia. My fellow veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and I have been very fortunate because most of those who oppose this war seem to have learned from that mistake and have been very careful to be supportive of us as people while voicing their opposition to our government's policies and practices. I have many great friends who are vocal critics of the administration and the war, and they have asked me if it makes me angry when they speak out against the war. I tell them that it can be frustrating at times, but that in the end, the right to speak out against anything one feels necessary is one of the things we fight for. I'm sure you remember the oath of enlistment that we "will support and defend the Constitution of the United States." To me, as a once and future writer, this is especially true of the First Amendment, and I believe that it is one's duty to voice his or her opinion, even if that opinion is in the minority. To me, patriotism is upholding the ideals and principles on which the nation was founded, and the right to speak and assemble is an incredibly important freedom. If you believe that the current conflicts are wrong, then I think it is important to speak out in a passionate way. While the troops may initially feel a bit slighted, if you support them as people in the long run, especially those with mental and physical scars, then that is patriotic.

Question Four: If one has a different military specialty, does one still have to serve on the front lines?

Dear Capt. Rawlings,

I hope you are doing well and I appreciate everything you and our troops do to keep our country safe. I have a question regarding duties when a soldier is sent to Iraq. My fiance is currently still in basic training at Fort Jackson, and he was told that 80 percent of the people in his platoon will be deployed to Iraq in the next year and a half. I've been told by several people that regardless of your MOS [military occupational specialty], you will do what the Army needs you to do at a given time. Nick's MOS is helicopter repair. Is there any chance that he would be sent to the front lines instead of doing what he was trained to do? Or will he be on a base working on helicopters like he was trained? This is just a concern of mine and I would appreciate it if you could clear this up for me.

Thank you and God bless,

Sarah Borders, Shelbyville, Ind.

Dear Ms. Borders,

Thank you for your question and for your fiance's service. Due to the high operational tempo of the Army, it is likely that the 80 percent figure is fairly accurate as all of the combat brigades in the Army rotate in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan. The short answer to your question about your fiance performing duties outside of his MOS is maybe. If he is training to be a helicopter mechanic, then I imagine this will be his primary duty as helicopters are an integral part of nearly all operations and require a lot of complex maintenance. In this job, he will be on a base with an airfield. Depending on his location and unit, however, there is a good chance that he will perform other duties, especially on convoys and movements perhaps as a driver or gunner in a Humvee. My Humvee driver on my Military Adviser Team to the Iraqi army is a tank mechanic, and he is an outstanding soldier who has performed his duties on our team flawlessly. So, while your fiance might have some missions where he might be part of a Humvee crew, I imagine that the vast majority of his time will be spent working on helicopters, which is a vital job right now.

Question Five: Can I serve, but avoid going to Iraq?

Dear Capt. Rawlings,

I am considering a career in the military right after high school ends this year. The problem I am facing is that being I will be taking a risk of being deployed to Iraq my mother doesn't want me to. What do you suggest I do?

Paul Durham, Kokomo Ind.

Dear Paul,

I think it is great that you are considering military service. From my time with soldiers, especially as a platoon leader, time in the military is a chance to mature and grow as you figure out what you want to do with your life. It is very hard for any parent to see their son or daughter ship out to one of the theaters of war, but this is the reality of the military at this time. My mother definitely didn't want me to go and I know it was very hard on her. When I shipped out the first time, I told her that I would do my very best to take care of myself and take care of my men, and that I would leave the rest up to powers beyond me. My mother is religious and has put a great deal of her struggles and frustrations into her faith, and I know that she prays for my safety and for that of my soldiers. While your joining the military and deploying will be hard on your mother, if that is what you want then you just need to be as honest as possible and then do your very best to do your job and return to her when it is done.

Question Six: How long before Iraq can stand on its own feet?

Dear Captain,

Do you believe the Iraqis really want their country united? Do you believe the Iraqis can overcome their tribal and religious differences within a reasonable time? This war, which we should never been involved in, was started five years ago. Despite what the administration and Sen. McCain say, I find it difficult to believe we are making progress. I know the military line: We follow orders. We are not the policemen of the world. How long do you believe it will take before the Iraqi people can stand on their own?

God bless our military and everyone caught up in war.

Joe Mitchell, Austin, Texas

Dear Mr. Mitchell,

I think that on some level, the people of Iraq do want a united country, or at the very least, one where they don't have to fear for their children and family as they go about their daily lives. Iraq's origins as a modern country are the result of sketches on a map by the British, and its 20th century history is dominated by brutal dictatorship, so the degree of difficulty in unifying the people is very high. Unfortunately, while Saddam Hussein's government was horrifyingly vile, it was also very effective at keeping sectarian violence low, often by torture, imprisonment and murder, and in the absence of that brute force. Iraq's security elements are experiencing what could be politely referred to as "growing pains." I don't know how long it will take to prepare the Iraqi military and police to effectively secure the nation, but the Iraqi troops and their organization are certainly far better now than what I saw in 2006. I hope we can keep making progress and leave soon, but the job is far from over.