Silence kills

By TONY GIAMPETRUZZI  |  May 25, 2006

When Eric Gundberg, now a 32-year-old Portland business owner, was growing up in rural Unity, Maine, his life seemed geared toward divine service. He was a straight-A student and a cerebral loner who lived by the good book: the son of fundamental Christians, Gundberg went to church at least three times a week and, to this day, claims to be able to recite more of the Bible than anyone else he knows.

One day, having graduated from high school, traveled to Europe and around the US but not yet set up to go to college, Gundberg drove past a Waterville recruiting office and, by his account, said “what the hell.”

Enlisting in 1992 at age 19, Gundberg’s service began at almost exactly the same time Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell was taking effect in the armed forces. He was never subjected to the exacting witch hunts that preceded the law, but no matter: his desire was to stay not only closeted, but off the market for years to come.

“All I really wanted to do was prove to myself that gay men can do this. I wasn’t out at all, I didn’t even lose my virginity until I was 23,” Gundberg recalls, noting that, even though anti-gay jokes were rife in the barracks, no one ever suspected the physically slight Mainer was anything less than a bona fide fly boy. “It never came up. I wasn’t teased more than anyone else; I was always very good at keeping my sexual orientation hidden.”

After studying at the vaunted Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, where high scores on his aptitude test led to an education in the Korean language (one of the most difficult), Gundberg began to travel the world, all the while remaining closeted.

“I really liked the military. I had a lot of friends and met a lot of interesting people without having any gay lifestyle at all, nothing. People asked me, ‘when you were on leave, did you hang out at gay bars?’ Nope! Never. In fact, I was in California at one point and there was one guy there who everyone knew was gay, and I just avoided him like the plague because I didn’t want to be associated with him,” says Gundberg, who held the rank of staff sergeant and got one commendation from the National Security Agency after he translated during the Ebola outbreak in Zaire in 1995, and another commendation from the Air Intelligence Agency for his translations during the Balkan conflicts in 1997.

During what was by every measure an exemplary career, all before the age of 25, Gundberg was eventually stationed in Sacramento. He was living off base when he met his first boyfriend, Jonathon.

Soon after, Gundberg decided to do the unthinkable: tell, which was against the law.

“I was getting really tired of the hypocrisy. Because of my job, I had to be honest in life at all times, I had high security clearance, and that’s why I never did a lot on the outside,” he says. “These people were checking into you all the time, watching you. I couldn’t afford it.”

Turns out, his honesty cost him his pride, his relationship, and, most important, a job that embodies most of his ideals — but not quite all of them.

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Shrouded bliss
Those pushing for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell chose New England as their proving ground because it’s arguably the most liberal region of the nation. Yes, we have centrist Republican leaders, every single state has vast protections for gays and lesbians (Connecticut and Vermont will let same-sex couples register into a civil union), and, in Massachusetts gays can tie the knot.

But, if either member of the betrothed is serving in the military, they might want to think twice before making such a public record of their union: while Massachusetts, Vermont, and Connecticut have laws against bias on the job, they most certainly do not apply to the US military or the National Guard. And that bumps right up against DADT.

“I don’t think we can give any individual a hard and fast rule when it comes to grounds for discharge. I think the best we can do is tell people there are lots of things to consider — finances, partner’s finances, long-term financial planning, kids,” says Gary Buseck, an attorney at Boston-based Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders adding that, although there are other trips and traps (usually for non-citizens, those wishing to adopt) for people who wish to marry in Massachusetts, the military question is a big one.

“There are a lot of things you can do that don’t require ‘telling.’ But, each individual needs to make a series of choices: how long they have been in the military, is it your career, do you depend on the pension. Maybe you decide as much as you’d like to get married, you put it off because you don’t want to risk that pension.”

Not quite fair, now, is it?

Dixon Osburn doesn’t think so, and the growing number of states that allow for such unions is yet another reason for the urgency of a DADT repeal.

“When you have a public record that indicates your relationship, that could cause a problem. You [also] can’t get spousal benefits, which is one of the reasons why we want to get married [in the first place]. It is tricky and we do have an increasing number of cases that come to us with people who want to get married and want to know what the consequences are,” says Osburn, of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. “Some of these couples have children and they want to figure out how their children can get proper health care ... they all involve risk ... it’s really a matter of what sort of risks they want to take.”

For most, though, it’s the pension, stupid — and those in the know would often suggest to just not pop the question.

“Anybody who does anything that leads to a public record risks being discharged. The question is whether the military would actually get a copy of that information,” says Osburn. “With the public record there, there is certainly a strong risk that the military could obtain that information.”


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