When asked, this gay soldier told
Posted on June 2, 2009
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TUSTIN In a calm corner of his garage, a soldier rummages through reminders of the last ten years of his life. Silver coins. A Middle Eastern sash. An Army pistol. Only a few of the souvenirs in Dan Choi’s war chest will fit into his travel duffel.
As he packs, his mom walks in. She reaches around her son’s boulder-sized biceps for a hug.
“Are you staying for dinner?”
“I’m not sure.”
By nightfall, though, Choi will surely be gone. He’s getting out of Tustin, maybe for good.
Monumental change has unsettled the 28-year-old combat veteran and his family. In March, on national television, he said, “I am gay.”
That was news to a lot of people, including his bosses. And, the three short words thrust Choi into the limelight, booked his calendar with equal-rights rallies – and earned him a pink slip from the military.
But all the cameras and microphones that have trailed Choi since then have captured only part of the story. They haven’t been privy to his parents’ distress, his past anxieties or his newfound sense of liberation.
Thousands of other troops have gotten booted for outing themselves (or being outed) as gay or lesbian. But, like clockwork, most have disappeared from public view. Choi figures he will too at some point.
But he’s not going away now, and he’s not going away quietly.
HIGH SCHOOL LOWS
Over loudspeakers, he ranted.
It was 1998, and President Clinton was getting grilled by national media for his then-alleged affair with a 22-year-old intern. At Tustin High School, Choi, 17, took on the role of Clinton scold. He locked himself in a room and commandeered the public address system to decry the commander-in-chief’s weakness and offer what he saw as a cure-all: faith in Jesus Christ.
Choi’s sister, Grace, then a freshman, recalls her brother’s outburst as “surprising, but not embarrassing.”
Their dad, a Baptist minister who fought in the South Korean Army, helped raise his three kids to battle against injustice and sin. Years later, that duty to speak out would inspire Choi to talk about his sexuality – and throw a crimp in their father-son relationship.
“I always think of the story of a throng of people telling Christ to silence his disciples,” Choi says, adding: “And Christ said, ‘… if they keep quiet, the rocks will cry out.’”
But, in high school at least, Choi’s bold talk came with a cost. The acne-faced student body president lost his job as morning news announcer, and was forced into a sabbatical from student government.
Graduation cleaned his slate. Reinstated as president, the straight-A student gave a parting address to his peers. And, bound for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Choi left a rousing, two-page letter in the back of his own yearbook.
“Leave your kingdom,” he wrote to himself, “to be a lonely plebe down in the dump.”
In a forest near the academy, Choi smeared earth-tone paint on his face and hunkered down with his rifle. Energy-sapping practice missions, he says, were key to his college experience.
On campus, Choi studied environmental engineering. Critically, he also began mastering Arabic.
And he held onto his faith. He led Bible studies in the dorms and recited the “Cadet Prayer” every Sunday with the West Point choir. “Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong,” he prayed, “and to never to be content with a half truth when the whole can be won.”
Still, Choi concealed a truth. Since fourth grade, he had begged God to take away his attraction to other males. In college, he says, he remained unwilling to “explore” his sexuality.
In 2003, the Iraq War kicked into gear. Choi, now clear-faced and brawny, was soon sent to serve in the Persian Gulf.
There, he says he “greased hands” with elder Muslim Sheikhs, patrolled the Triangle of Death and designed a reverse-osmosis water plant for Baghdad citizens. He also passed on his knowledge of Arabic, as a teacher to thousands of American troops.
Throughout it all, compelled by the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, Choi kept mum about his sexual preference.
His final wartime task, delivering backpacks full of cash to contractors, kept him awake at night. It was around the time of that mission, sleepless in the desert, that he started asking a tough question:
Do I really want to keep lying?
When his tour ended, he wanted to boomerang back to Iraq. But that dream was brought to a halt in March when, on behalf of scores of West Point alumni and active-duty servicemembers, he went public with his sexual orientation.
WAR IN PEACE
On his last afternoon in town, rice steams in the kitchen as, upstairs, Choi sorts through a box of Army accolades.
“Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll be one of those stodgy old veterans wearing all his stuff,” he says, laughing, clutching a handful of medals.
Proud but tired of the half-truth, the highly decorated soldier returned from Iraq in 2008 and ditched reenlistment. Instead, he became a platoon leader in the National Guard. Stationed in New York, he met someone, parked down the street and lived in his car to be close to his first boyfriend.
Then Choi came home to Tustin to come out to his mom and dad – 19 times in fact, to show he wasn’t bluffing. He handed his dad a copy of the book “Loving Someone Gay.” A few days later he discovered it unopened on the floor of his closet.
“They don’t accept it,” Choi says. “And I don’t think they will anytime soon.”
Neither will the military. After his first of several prime time TV appearances, Choi, the rare Arabic-speaking serviceman, received an ultimatum from his employer – accept discharge or stand trial.
His chances before a judge seem slim, based on the dismissal of 12,500 past soldiers.
But he believes the fortunes of an estimated 65,000 gay and lesbian members of the armed forced could be changed if Congress were to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a move President Obama favors. So, Choi keeps talking to news anchors and shouting to crowds, which strains his home life – and, recently, compelled him to pack up and move.
“Silence is not a right,” Choi says.
“Silence is an unacceptable, inexcusable wrong.”
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