Pfc Shane M. Reifert

Pfc Shane M. Reifert
Shane during a sweep of the Shuryak Valley, approximately 3 weeks before he was killed. Photo Credit: PFC Sean Stromback

Friday, December 17, 2010

Puzzle Pieces

I went to the mall today to do a small amount of Christmas shopping that couldn't be done online. I'm not doing much shopping to begin with this year. My brother has been dead for 41 days. The lives of my family members and myself have been forever changed because of his death, and it's just a little difficult to get into the Christmas spirit. 

But I went to the mall. It was a mall that Shane and I had gone to when he was home on leave. We had to leave after about 10 minutes because the mall is very open and he didn't feel safe. It was something that I will probably never understand because I have never been in a war zone. I've never had anyone shoot a gun at me. I've never had to look for cover. I've never had to think about the possibility of a hidden sniper. But Shane had, and even though we were in America, we had to leave the mall. I thought about that the entire time I was in the mall. I thought about how dangerous a place it would be if something bad were happening. Too much glass, nothing to hide behind, too many people, not enough exits, too many variables. 

I did my shopping. I eavesdropped on conversations. I stood in long lines. I was surrounded by normal people with normal lives and I was jealous of them. Yes, everyone has their own story. Everyone has tragic events in their lives. Fortunately, we aren't made to walk around wearing t-shirts that read "My Brother was Killed" or "I'm an Alcoholic Single Mother" or "When I was 10 I was Molested." So it's quite possible that everyone I was with while at the mall was also suffering through some sort of tragedy. Maybe they all were. But listening to such mundane conversations makes me feel as if they were all leading normal lives while I was being miserable. Maybe that's because today I chose to allow myself to feel miserable. Maybe that's what I needed. But going to the mall made me feel depressed and alone and gave me a sense of dread for the upcoming holidays. 

One thing I'm not dreading is that one of the men with whom Shane went to Basic is coming to visit my family and myself over Christmas. I'm glad he's brave enough to come stay with us during a time when many might not want to be around us. I'm excited to meet him and hear stories about Shane; for him to bring with him another piece of Shane.

I find pieces of Shane in so many different people and places. It's as if I'm building a puzzle that I cannot see. I have no idea how big the puzzle is or how many pieces it contains and I probably never will. But people keep bringing me pieces and the puzzle is gradually becoming more complete. When it's done, I will know Shane better than if he had lived to be 100, because I will know parts of him that he never would have shared with me in life. Of course, I'd rather have him alive. But since I cannot, I will continue to accept the pieces of Shane that everyone so generously gives to me. And it will be enough.

A Gay Soldier's Letter, Written Before He Deployed to Afghanistan

A couple of months ago in my 14th Amendment course, we discussed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and my professor asked me what actual soldiers in the Army thought of the policy. (I have the privilege of going to a law school where my professors care about us as human beings and take the time to get to know us). I had actually discussed the issue of gays in the military with Shane on a couple prior occasions. I told my professor that I could not speak for all soldiers, but that Shane had said he didn't have a problem serving with gay men. He had told me that he knew some of the men he served with or went to Basic with were gay, and so did the Army, and no one really cared. Shane said that just as long as they could shoot, they were fine by him. 

Shane was always a pretty open minded person. And even though we grew up in a small town where most everyone looks and acts the same way, someone's sexual orientation wasn't something that mattered to Shane. 

I can't imagine what it has to be like to be a soldier. And I further can't imagine what it has to be like to be a solider who is forced to hide his or her identity. 

I read this letter written by a gay soldier before he deployed to Afghanistan on Jezebel and thought it was very well written and poignant and gave me a slightly higher level of understanding on how "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" affects actual soldiers. I understand that this policy incites arguments and, like many constitutional issues, is a topic on which reasonable minds may differ. I do not mean to offend anyone with post, but merely wanted to present a point of view that many of us would not normally be privy to.

I'm writing letters to my loved ones in case I don't return from Afghanistan. I hope my partner never has to open his. If he does, it will ask him to tell who I was, because I couldn't.

I was a teenager when my brother came home with an American flag draped over his coffin, so I understand the fragility of life and the dangers of serving. And the additional burden of Don't Ask, Don't Tell is one I choose to carry. I volunteered for deployment, and I continue to serve. It's my deepest core value, whatever the cost.

The silence is the hardest part. I listen intently as my fellow soldiers talk about facing the reality of leaving their loved ones for a year and all the life events that will be missed. I don't talk about my own experience at all, because it's easier to come across as cold and removed than to risk slipping and mentioning that my loved one is of the same gender. For all I know, there are other gay soldiers in my unit, ones who understand what I'm going through. My gay friends in civilian life are supportive, but they don't often understand the military or soldiering. That camouflage is another burden I carry as I prepare to leave.

It's also difficult knowing that this policy is nothing more than politics. I try not to think too much about DADT and how destructive it is to peoples' lives, to military units, readiness, and to the progression of our country to a better place. But when I do let myself think about these things, I seethe with anger.

I am angry at the politicians who have for several years talked the talk on the policy, heightening the awareness of homosexuality among military personnel, and then done little to nothing to actually change it. We gay soldiers are the ones who suffer but can't openly participate in the debate.
I am angry at certain senators -– John McCain comes to mind –- who have obviously lost touch with any understanding of the current generation of service men and women, who, as we all know, support repeal at overwhelming numbers. They hide behind a vitriolic rhetoric fraught with illogical arguments and innuendo, smothered by their obvious fear.

And so we wait to see what the Senate will do. In the meantime, I have to remind myself to look elsewhere for comfort, to remember the courage of people like Dan Choi and his consistent devotion to changing this policy, at a very personal cost. Or Katie Miller, who made public at West Point who she really is, but would seek return the moment the policy is overturned. I also remind myself of the moral courage of Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen, thankful that some at the highest level of military leadership get it even as others call our plight a "distraction."

And I'm reminded of the moral courage of my partner, who encourages me everyday to continue to put on that uniform; who believes that some things are worthy of our energies; who quietly plods along and prepares for my deployment as I do the same. I know as a soldier, it is the people we leave behind who bear the real brunt of deployment, who hold it all together, who send the care packages and pray for our returns. He'll have to do it on his own though. There are no support groups for the gay partners left back home.

In the meantime, gay soldiers who are still serving in silence will continue to put on our rucksacks and do what our country asks of us –- and wait.