Roger Dean Huffstetler, a former Marine Corps sergeant, shares his story through our Getting to "I Do" program. This piece originally appeared in the Washington Post Opinions section on 3 April 2014.
I slept with a gay man for six months in Afghanistan.
No one asked. He did not tell.
In 2005, I and 200 Marines in my squadron deployed to Afghanistan to support the global war on terrorism. We were stationed at Bagram air base, a deep bowl surrounded by snowcapped mountains, where it rained and snowed while the sun beamed, prompting one Marine to remark, “Welcome to Afghanistan, the only place on Earth where you get all four seasons and a rocket in the same day.”
We lived in “B-huts,” wooden houses with no internal structure, subdivided into “rooms” by flimsy plywood boards. Every moment was spent in close quarters: working in small offices, eating meals in the chow hall, sleeping in our racks, exercising. We saw each other at our best and our worst, shared secrets and fears, lost patience with and supported one another through the duration of deployment.
Sgt. Santiago and I spoke often, if casually. He routinely had one of the highest physical fitness test scores in our unit and never missed a chance to go salsa dancing stateside with fellow Marines, including our senior enlisted Marine and his wife, whom he persuaded to join a few times. He also proudly displayed his Puerto Rican flag in his barracks. Nevertheless, he was a reserved man, quiet, private. I assumed these were inherent personality traits. I didn’t realize that he was hiding something.
I believed I knew the men in my B-hut better than I knew most of my friends at home, yet the man sleeping next door had a secret he dared not reveal for fear of being removed from active duty. It never crossed my mind that he was gay — or that I could have done so much more to be his friend.
Even as a kid, Andy was exceptionally affable, the kind of person who could talk to a trash can. He never met a stranger, and he unfailingly seemed to know where he was going. Andy was surrounded by a close group of friends, always together, always laughing. It’s fair to say everyone enjoyed being around him.
In our teens, Andy and I would go on mission trips around the country, helping to clean or build homes, with a little vacation Bible school on the side. Perhaps Andy knew then that he was gay — it seems likely — but he flirted with girls, same as the rest of us. If he did know, he kept it to himself, and I lived in ignorance about it.
It would be 20 years before Facebook told me what I didn’t know about my childhood friend. About the same time, Sgt. Santiago’s news broke through the same social network: Both men were engaged to be married. To men.
There was suddenly nothing I wanted more than make amends.
No, I never gay-bashed. I didn’t bully, I didn’t hate, I didn’t torment.
But I did say “fag” to a fellow Marine in front of Sgt. Santiago. I did stay seated in the pew when my minister challenged, “Don’t let anyone tell you that this church is soft on homosexuality.” Silence is a most powerful consent.
I would think: Civil unions, what’s wrong with that? I considered myself “accepting” and “tolerant,” excusing the soft discrimination that’s easy to shrug off, the implicit inequality of separate but equal.
The irony was that I had always imagined that if I’d lived in the time of segregation and the civil rights movement, I would be the white Southerner who was proud to march with the NAACP — that I would tear down bigoted beliefs and demand equality for all, even putting myself at risk if need be.
But I didn’t do those things. I watched the fight right in front of me without question, inactive and accepting — just like the generations before me.
Well, no longer.
Andy and Sgt. Santiago both happen to live in New York now, and in a single visit I managed to apologize to and feel the weight of my embarrassment before each of them.
I blinked back tears as I spoke to Sgt. Santiago, who slept next door in Afghanistan, watching for my life as I watched for his:
“I’m sorry I let you down.”
To Andy, my childhood friend who still worships the same God as I do:
“Finding out you are gay has been instrumental in my supporting gay marriage. I’m sorry it took this long.”
And to both of them:
“I aim to do everything I can to make up for being late to the party.”
We don’t need to look backward for a chance to stand up for principles. Life isn’t about always being right — I was wrong for a long time — but about learning from mistakes and making amends. So I started with those conversations and writing about the effect these two men had on me, about how someone raised a Southern Baptist can love everyone equally and can advocate marriage equality.
If you’re reading this and you go to church every Sunday but you know that discrimination is wrong, or you’re serving overseas and worried that you or others in your squadron can’t be themselves, there is something you can do. Write. Speak out. Find the Andys and Sgt. Santiagos in your life and make amends. There is still time to be on the right side of history.
#1 B-huts on Bagram airbase, courtesy of James Dylan on panoramio.com.
#2 Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, "Munich - Two boys playing in a park."
#3 T-shirt graphic, courtesy of "Separate But Equal - Heterosexual Marriage Homosexual Unions - Been there Done that--Gay Pride Rainbow Shop T-SHIRT" at TopPun.com.
#4 Handshake photo is a free online image.
I am not sure if I would be here talking about marriage for same-sex couples if I had not known my friend Darron for the last 15 years.
We met at a restaurant where we both worked while supporting ourselves through college. Darron is one of the most giving and forgiving people I have ever met. I saw him bend over backwards to help people, including family members who did not always do the same for him. Darron is just the kind of person who if you meet him, you love him.
Over time, I watched Darron manage to become comfortable in his gay identity. This was a tough feat for him because he came from a religious family who would have preferred to keep his sexuality a secret. He finally had everyone in his life accepting him for who he was and he had achieved a perfect balance between keeping his family comfortable and still being able to be himself. Life was good and we graduated, and he went on to become a nurse practitioner - a great field for him given his caring nature. The only thing missing was him finding the love of his life, which he always talked about. I could easily see him married as he had always been marriage-minded and was a loyal person.
About six years ago, I was so excited for him that he met Rich; they have been committed to each other ever since. Since then I have watched him endure again having to go the extra mile to work around other people’s discomfort with who he was. This time, he was trying to meet his personal goals of marriage, while having to work around legal obstacles.
For example, I watched he and his partner struggle to buy a house together, having to obtain expensive lawyers to craft paperwork that gives equal ownership of a house to two people who are not married, all the while knowing that if they could just be married the road to purchasing would already be paved for them. Darron and Rich have also had to struggle with other legal and personal liberties that most citizens take for granted, like putting each other on their health insurance, estate planning to leave financial security for each other through life insurance, and the list goes on. It breaks my heart to see Darron and Rich, who have been in a stable and productive relationship for the last seven years, be denied the marriage they so deserve.
Sometimes I get asked why I care so much about the freedom to marry for same-sex couples, when it does not directly affect me as a heterosexual woman. My personal motto has always been that you don’t have to be one to stand with one. From my work as a certified Franklin Covey diversity trainer, I learned that when a person is excluded, it makes them feel invisible. And we human beings have a basic need to be seen and counted by our peers.
I realize that I don’t always understand people and treat people as I would like, but I do try to understand people better and get to know where they are coming from.
I am grateful I did this with Darron and am excited to report that just as I was finishing this story, Darron and Rich got engaged! I look forward to the day that I can attend their wedding and celebrate with them!
Story by Renitta Shannon
First photo: Renitta and Darron
Second photo: MEUSA's Getting to I Do program on Cowbird - click image to learn about the program and to share your story!