Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Do tell: Two gay heroes

U.S. Army Maj. Alan G. Rogers

The recent spike in U.S. troop deaths in Afghanistan brought to mind two gay men who have served with distinction, and in one case died, in our post 9/11 wars --- heroes, too, in both the generic and specific senses that we have used that word since terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva, the first among U.S. military personnel wounded in Operation Iraqi Freedom, survived to become a warrior against Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. U.S. Army Maj. Alan G. Rogers did not survive and, in dying, became the first known LGBT fatality.

There’s little doubt that thousands of gay and lesbian U.S. troops have served in these wars and that many have been killed, but the institutional hypocrisy of DADT, set to expire Sept. 20, has almost guaranteed that the majority will not be acknowledged.

The best estimates are that in excess of 14,000 U.S. troops have been discharged under DADT since its inception in 1993, many the victims of witch hunts, others victimized by their own bravery in speaking out. That number most likely is only a small fraction of the number who have served and died honorably, and continue to do so, shielded by their own silence and, in many cases, by supportive comrades.

Alva, a San Antonio native, now 40, enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps at age 19 in 1990. He served in Somalia during Operation Restore Hope and for 10 years in Japan and California before his unit, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, was deployed to the Middle East.

That unit was among the first to cross from Kuwait into Iraq as Operation Iraqi Freedom commenced on March 21, 2003, and three hours into the operation Alva stepped on a landmine that broke his left leg, resulted in the amputation of his right leg and left him with permanent nerve damage to his right arm. Thus, he became the first Iraqi Freedom casualty and its first Purple Heart recipient.

Alva did not speak out about his sexual orientation until after he had undergone many months of recuperation and physical therapy, received a medical discharge and returned to college.

In 2007, Alva became an activist in opposition to DADT and fulfilled that mission so effectively than when President Obama signed repealing legislation on Dec. 22, 2010, he was standing behind the president, observing. He continues to be a spokesman and activist for the Human Rights Campaign.

Alan G. Rogers’ story is considerably more poignant. He’s a special hero of mine in part because we both wore the M.I. symbol of stacked sun, dagger and rose, although there’s a substantial difference between buck sergeant and major.

Born in New York City during 1967 to a mother who placed him for adoption, Rogers remained in an orphanage until age 3 when he was adopted by George and Genevieve Rogers. At age 10, he moved with his mother to Hampton, Florida, so that she could care for her aging mother. George joined them there upon retirement.

His parents never told him that he was adopted, a fact he discovered for himself after they both died, George during 2000 and Genevieve, during 2002. A stellar student, he was active in Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, a congregation that also ordained him to preach as a young man.

Rogers had set his sights on a military career, serving in the enlisted ranks during Operation Desert Shield. After earning a bachelor’s degree in religion at the University of Florida on a R.O.T.C. scholarship, he accepted a commission as an intelligence officer.

During a career that included two tours of duty in Korea and duty in the initial phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom he earned other advanced degrees.

Rogers began his third tour of duty in Iraq during late 2007 where he was assigned to the 1st Division National Police Transition Team, which involved embedding with Iraqi military units in an effort to train them for eventual self-sufficiency. He was killed by an I.E.D. while on routine patrol on Jan. 27, 2008. He had previously earned two Bronze Star medals and was awarded a Purple Heart posthumously.

After his death, it became clear that Rogers had lived the sort of strictly compartmentalized life that many LGBT people felt necessary, as some still do, for survival. He was open about his sexual orientation among heterosexual Florida friends, to whom it didn’t matter, as well as to his only surviving family members, distant and disapproving cousins.

His heterosexual military friends and co-workers had no idea of his sexual orientation, but another set of friends and colleagues, who also were gay, were fully aware. He had become active while stationed in Washington, D.C., in the gay rights advocacy groups American Veterans for Equal Rights and the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. A thesis written during advanced studies at Georgetown University, apparently destroyed by others as part of a posthumous effort to blur his sexuality, had dealt with the effects of DADT on the military.

Universally praised as a stellar officer and human being by colleagues of all orientations, something of a battle developed after his death over how he would be remembered --- driven it seems in part by some heterosexual military personnel stationed at the Pentagon. Even The Washington Post became embroiled in controversy when it carefully and consciously omitted references to his sexual orientation from a glowing profile that followed his death.

It took an exceptionional piece of journalism by Ben McGrath, published on Aug. 4, 2008, in The New Yorker to clear the air. It was headlined, “A Soldier’s Legacy: Don’t ask, don’t tell, but Alan Rogers was a hero to everyone who knew him.”

In large part because of that, Rogers’ legacy as a outstanding soldier and human being who by luck of the draw happened to be gay is now secure.

Alan Rogers grave at Arlington National Cemetery

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