I had been itching since May the Fourth, Two Thousand and Fourteen, to get this blog out of my head in time for the Memorial Day Weekend of 2014. Two unforgettable events have happened in my life on May the Fourth in two different years.
The first one happened on May 4th, 2010, when the largest sandstorm I had ever seen in my life hit southern Afghanistan when I was deployed there. I was an unmanned aircraft commander at the time. While our smallest spy planes were crashing left and right due to high winds, and while we were inhaling the finest Afghanistan dust that the sandstorm could push into our lungs, I was determined to bring my little aircraft home and maintain my record of zero mishaps. With cool, calm, and collectedness that surprised even me, my team and I worked together to land our bird safely on the flight line while my anxiously waiting commanding officer and his replacement stood next to me on the take-off/landing watchtower. When my aircraft touched down safely, the three of us screamed for joy as if we had just blown up the Death Star. My CO and his replacement thanked me for preventing another mishap, and I am pretty sure my cool, calm, and collectedness during this period of turmoil and near-zero visibility was seared in their memory from that day on. And from that day on, I regarded those two Marine lieutenant colonels not only as my commanding officers, but as my big brothers who supported my career for the rest of my time in the Corps. Family is what they are to me now.
My second unforgettable event that happened on May the Fourth happened this year, 2014. It all started with a little congratulatory Facebook post for two men who were recently engaged to each other. Lance Buchanan and U.S. Navy Lieutenant Kyle Bandermann are two names that I may never forget from here on. In case you don’t know them, or forgot who they are, they are the cute Navy couple whose wedding proposal photo and engagement announcement went viral when it was first posted on the American Military Partner Association’s public Facebook page on May 4th, 2014.
I was happy for them, smiling at the picture of Kyle on his knee as he proposed to Lance. Looking at that photo, I thought about my fantastic wedding that took place on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. A few hours later, AMPA’s Director of Family Affairs, Ashley Broadway, posted on her personal Facebook page that she was very distraught at the seemingly endless stream of hateful comments coming in from all over the country aimed at the two men. The comments ranged from pure elation and genuine congratulations to non-stop hatefulness. Thankfully, like a family rushing in from all over the country to defend our family name, members of the American Military Partner Association jumped in to thwart these verbal attackers, some of them even sparring with the trolls like seasoned veterans (pun intended, of course, since many of AMPA’s members are in fact either veterans or currently serving members of the Armed Forces).
Funny how a picture of a Navy man kneeling on one knee proposing to another man can just bring out the worst in people. I read the most unsavory words used by these hateful trolls on this most celebratory occasion. When I realized the tremendous amount of hateful comments pouring in to the otherwise happy Facebook post, I had a moment of helplessness in which I thought, “No matter what we do, no matter how happy our occasions may be, haters are going to come in and ruin it.” Reading the hateful comments was like seeing Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church come back to life. It was like witnessing the WBC protest our uniformed brothers’ and sisters’ funerals all over again. And Lance and Kyle had done nothing wrong.
It was at that moment that I accepted that I had just had enough. I plunged right in like a mosh pit to join the melee. At the moment I jumped in, there were already 1,100 comments and climbing. I narrowed my target area to the last 50 comments and found the one, maybe two, guys who were obviously the most obnoxious commentators at the time. Obnoxious Guy #1 stated that he would never join the military because of all the “fags and homos.” Obnoxious Guy #2 stated that he was getting ready to join the Army but was completely opposed to all the gays in the military. They were spraying some really hateful stuff.
But you see, words like these don’t hurt me anymore. They used to, but in my 20 years in the Marine Corps, I survived “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, overcame long periods of loneliness as a gay military man, found the love of my life, deployed and survived the Middle East several times, and lived to tell tales while some of my friends died in combat. Go ahead, troll, say something to me.
As I was hooking and jabbing away on the keyboard at the trolls on my iPad, and with the memory of my dead friends in the Marine Corps, I thought about the fact that gays and lesbians themselves have died in the service to their country. Lou Chibarro Jr. of the Washington Blade wrote in November 2013, “Four gay male service members and one lesbian service member have died in action while serving in the military. The five are Lloyd Darling, who was killed in Vietnam in 1968; Alan Rogers, killed in Iraq in 2008; Andy Wilfahrt, killed in Afghanistan in 2011; Donna Johnson, killed in Afghanistan in 2012; and Reid Nishizuka, killed in Afghanistan in 2013.”
Finally, the following words came out of my fingers and into the comments aimed at the trolls: “Gays and lesbians have died in the service to their country, and you haters will NEVER be as big a man or woman as them.”
Exhaled. That was it. Those are the words that I had always wanted to say to our haters. Those are the words that will forever shield my heart from all the horrible words that haters will throw at me. I have solid examples of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters paying the ultimate sacrifice in the defense of the freedom and liberties that the United States Constitution provides its people.
Of the five I mentioned above, Donna Johnson stood out the most. To me, she was the first gay service member that I learned by name who was killed in the line of duty. Reid Nishizuka followed her to heaven a year later. Last Friday night, May 16th, 2014, I ran into Donna’s widow Tracy Johnson in Washington, DC, at the historic AMPA National Gala. Nice woman. I felt very much at ease with her. We shared a cab ride to the after party where we drank, took photos, and had a good old time. That evening, Tracy shared the happiest news about Donna with the rest of the world since Donna’s passing: Tracy has been recognized by the Department of Veterans Affairs as Donna’s survivor and will now receive death benefits resulting from Donna’s sacrifice to her country.
Take that, haters.
So it is with the memory of Staff Sergeant Donna Johnson, United States Army, and the four other known gay and brave uniformed members of our mighty Armed Forces who’ve died in service to our nation, that I write this blog in time for Memorial Day Weekend, 2014.
Happy Memorial Day, everyone. And hug your service member for the rest of your lives.
Romm Gatongay is a retired United States Marine Corps Officer who served 17 of his 20 years living a double life under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. He is happily married to his partner of 10 years and is living in the National Capital Region. Romm originally hails from Torrance, California, a place that is considered a melting pot of many races and values and where he learned to accept others for their diverse backgrounds. He is happy to lend his time to AMPA, which he admires and considers a viable resource of knowledge and support for the spouses and significant others of gay and lesbian service members. Romm’s opinions expressed here are his own and do not represent the United States Marine Corps or the Department of Defense.