Out of the khaki closet

For thousands of soldiers like Sacramento’s Justin Blanco, the battle against ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ was won too late

Justin Blanco battled the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule as a soldier.

Justin Blanco battled the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule as a soldier.

Photo By david jayne

Former soldier Justin Blanco has endured daily mortar fire, moldy barracks and extreme desert heat. But for him, the toughest challenge has been the Armed Forces ban on openly gay soldiers.

“For five years, I was in a lonely, legal prison,” Blanco said.

The bars to that prison are now swinging open, with Congress recently adopting an amendment to change the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

But for Blanco, and others, the changes are too late. His story is one of 14,000—the number of armed services personnel who have been fired for homosexuality since 1993.

The “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule has officially been in place since 1993, and under the guise of risks to “good order, morale and discipline,” allows for the military to discharge individuals for homosexual conduct. Since, soldiers and other advocates have fought the policy, and the Obama administration has pushed to end it. Signed into law by President Barack Obama in December, the repeal goes into affect after a 60-day waiting period.

On the day Obama announced plans for the repeal this year, Blanco went to a recruiting station, but unsure what to do, left.

“I didn’t want to get out of the military in the first place,” he said. “I had wanted to stay in.” In a way, by visiting the recruiting station, Blanco had come full circle, except this time, he did not sign up.

He first enlisted in 2004 after graduating from Keema High School in North Highlands. At the time, he said, he could not afford college, and his only work experience was at Pizza Hut. The military provided an opportunity and training in an area of interest—electronics.

Blanco also knew the military would present challenges due to his sexuality. He didn’t count on the toll that challenge would take. “I knew I would have to re-closet myself,” he said. “But I was more concerned about being in the military than being gay. I hoped for repeal, but I didn’t think I would need it as much as I did.”

Trained in repairing missile systems, Blanco was first sent to South Korea. There, he lived in barracks with chronic mold problems at a base 12 miles from the demilitarized zone with North Korea.

“Our base was basically a speed bump if North Korea decided to invade,” Blanco said of it now. He also abided with the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, though he began to question it.

“My friends in Korea either didn’t know or didn’t care, which made me question why I closeted myself in the first place,” he said. “One thing about the military is it allows you a chance to start over, so when the military sent me to Fort Drum, I had a new mindset. I decided I am not going to tell people I am gay, but I am not going to hide it.”

At Fort Drum, Blanco said, word got around he might be gay, particularly after he failed to notice an attractive girlfriend of one his friends. He also had a relationship with a civilian. Even so, his comrades didn’t make a big deal of it.

Blanco’s homosexuality didn’t become an issue for him until the military sent him to Iraq for 14 months. “It was hot and dry, and the first four months we were mortared daily,” he said of his time at a base in the Kirkuk region. The real stress for him, however, was the isolation, particularly as a gay man.

“I didn’t have anyone I could confide in,” he said. “I knew about a dozen other homosexuals, but they were in different units or at different bases.”

Although he could and did talk to a chaplain, the closeted life took its toll on Blanco.

Blanco served in the military in South Korea and Iraq.

photo courtesy of justin blanco

“I was nauseous and depressed, I couldn’t sleep,” he said. Concerned about his health and the quality of his soldiering, he decided to come forward. “I loved being in the military, but [hiding] being gay made my career start to decay. My work, wants, needs and mind were all at war.”

After months of deliberation, back at Fort Drum in 2009, Blanco, by then promoted to sergeant, wrote a letter to his battalion commander revealing his sexuality. The commander was supportive but obliged to follow regulations. “‘I don’t care that you are gay, but my hands are tied,’” Blanco recalled his colonel saying.

The colonel was not alone in reluctantly having to follow orders.

The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy has been costly in many ways. The federal Government Accountability Office, for instance, has found that DADT has cost the military about $200 million in related costs such as training replacements for discharged troops. At the same time, numerous studies, including one by the RAND Corporation, have found homosexuality does not negatively impact morale or unit cohesion. Even so, the policy has cost the armed forces vital personnel at a time when, according to the Pentagon, 75 percent of Americans are unqualified to serve. In one example, more than 300 linguists, including those speaking in-demand languages such as Arabic and Farsi, have been fired because of the DADT rule.

Blanco fought his discharge but after three months he was dismissed, although with full benefits. His comrades were supportive.

“Since I had never made a conscious effort to hide my sexuality, word got around that Foxtrot Company had a gay soldier in the maintenance platoon that was getting kicked out,” he said. “I had [about] 100 soldiers come up to me to shake my hand, to express respect … or to say they supported my decision … or thanking me for taking a stand.”

But such support added up to little more than a moral victory for Blanco.

Through the GI Bill, he now attends college in Sacramento, and continues to study electronics. But he still wonders what might have been. “I have waited and waited for this to happen,” he said of the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” “I am glad [the repeal] happened, but I can’t help but feel a little bitter.”