Today is Veterans Day—and the eve of Veterans Week, November 12-18. To honor those who serve and have served—especially those who served in silence for so many years,—we present an excerpt from the new collection, In the Shadow of Greatness, which shares stories of leadership, service and sacrifice by servicemembers in the wake of 9/11.
Below is an excerpt from Lt. Gary Ross, detailing his his struggle with Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and DOMA with Dan, his partner of 12 years. Today, Lt. Ross serves as a combat-systems officer on the U.S.S. Anchorage.
I met Dan on a dating website during my sophomore year at the Academy. He was a flight attendant, and his schedule allowed us to spend most weekends together. He frequently planned his trips to meet me in various cities when I was on movement orders with the Yard Patrol Squadron, the training ships of the Academy. I also joined him on several of his trips during holiday breaks. He mailed me postcards every night he was away from home. By summer, we were hopelessly in love.
When I deployed on my first ship, USS Valley Forge (CG 50), Dan dropped me off at the pier, shook my hand, and watched as I walked up the gangway. As other couples exchanged their goodbyes, he went back to our car and started sobbing. We had been together for three years by that point, and Dan stood by my side even though my career kept us from freely expressing the love we had for each other.
While at sea, Dan wrote me daily emails and sent weekly care packages, but even these small gestures had to be “protected.” Dan used a special email address just for our correspondence and signed everything as “Danielle” or simply with the letter “D.” When I returned from weeks or months on patrol, Dan waited for me in off-base parking lots. I walked past my shipmates as they joyfully reunited with their loved ones. When I reached the parking lot, I threw my sea bag in the trunk, and we awkwardly saved our embrace until we got home, behind closed doors.
Those moments hurt. I deployed for months, enduring the trials of the seas, working ungodly hours on the bridge, and standing the watch. To return home from harm’s way and not be allowed to show love for my boyfriend made me question everything. Who wer e my true friends? Who could I trust? Was military service worth this tremendous burden on my relationship?
I was not the only one asking questions. Whether they knew it or not, my shipmates often asked personal questions that put me in a difficult position of having to choose between being antisocial or telling a lie. They would often ask, “Are you married?” or “What are you doing this weekend?” Being antisocial would not have been good for unit camaraderie or morale since officers have a duty to espouse good order, positive attitudes, and motivation to accomplish the mission. On the other hand, lying would break the trust we shared as shipmates. I did not want to live a lie or be deceptive with my shipmates.
Unfortunately, I had to choose a combination of the two. For the good of my country and my passion to serve as an officer, I became somewhat abrasive toward intrusive questioning, while at the same time perfecting my ability to lie to those who had to trust me unconditionally in battle. I would not be rude to my depart- ment head or chiefs. I would instead tell “white lies.” If I could get away with only changing a pronoun here or there, that’s what I did: “Dan” was “Danielle”; “he” became “she.” While this worked on USS Valley Forge, it was not effective for those who had known me since Annapolis. If you were not married by thirty in the U.S. military, someone would begin to inquire if you were gay. That’s just the way it was. Everyone wanted to know why I hadn’t married Danielle.
When I received new orders, Dan would fly to the area and search for a home. He specifically looked in communities that provided privacy and had few military residents. In some areas, this required a long commute. In others, it required two homes to minimize my commute a few nights per week. We rarely enjoyed dinner at restaurants or movies at theaters because we could not risk people see- ing us together. Dan did most of the shopping by himself. There were a few times when we accidentally encountered military people at the mall or grocery store. Dan would keep on walking while I stopped to talk to them.
Gary and Dan exchanged vows in Duxbury, Vermont, the moment Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed. At the stroke of midnight on September 20, 2011.they became first same-sex military couple to legally marry in the United States. Servicemembers Legal Defense Network filed landmark federal litigation on behalf of the Rosses, suing the U.S. Attorney General, the Secretary of Defense, and the Secretary of Veterans Affairs for equal recognition, benefits and family support.