On his first day with his new platoon at Fort Hood, Micah Merrill stood in the platoon office while several noncommissioned officers asked him a series of typical bureaucratic questions — about physical fitness, prior military service, etc. — until things got weird. "Have you seen Brokeback Mountain?"
Specialist Merrill is exactly the guy critics were talking about when they warned it was a bad idea to end Don't Ask Don't Tell during wartime. He'd known since junior high that he wanted to serve, but the anti-gay policy kept him out. As soon as the Pentagon signaled that DADT would be ending soon, he enlisted in the Army in July 2011. A little less than a year later, he was being humiliated in front of almost three dozen people for being gay. "How many guys have you fucked?" "Do your parents know you're gay?" "Are you a top or a bottom?" "Would you suck a dick right now?" "Why did you choose to be homosexual?"
There is a tendency, I think, for some reporters to explain the troops and the wars, to make them more relatable, by saying, in essence, "Hey liberals, the soldiers are just like you! They hate war, just like you! They hate 'Support the Troops' bumper stickers, just like you!" But the reality is they're not just like you. While an organization as massive as the U.S. military cannot be homogenous, the people who succeed in the military are different from most of us. They like the rules and the order and the hierarchy. They do not feel suffocated in that environment. They thrive.
Merrill is not like you. Merrill is a gay man in a combat arms unit — that is, the people who do the fighting — and right now, he's in Afghanistan. His mistreatment didn't cause Merrill to resent the military, or think that the institution is broken or morally corrupt. It, in fact, strengthened his faith in the military, because, if you are okay being a cog, you have to believe in the wheel. Even though it took some time, the system worked. That might not be the lesson that everyone else would take. And that is why his story is important. The things that make Merrill good at the military have nothing to do with his sexuality. He would do basic training all over again!
I started emailing with Merrill in July after a soldier friend at Fort Hood who served with my husband in Iraq told me about an openly gay soldier in his battalion. Over the last several months worth of correspondence, Merrill told me the story of coming out in the new Army.
For 45 minutes at the beginning of his new life at Fort Hood, Merrill stood at parade rest while "I was bombarded with questions like that, one after the other, like a machine gun," Merrill says. "If you could have seen my face then, I probably looked shell-shocked." Merrill wasn't even out of the closet yet — not to his fellow soldiers, not to his family, and not even completely to himself.
If you don't know military jargon, your eyes might glaze over during debates about the policy intricacies determining who gets to fight for their country, whether it's gay soldiers or women in combat or whatever. Infantry, tankers, artillery — these are the combat arms units who actively engage the enemy, as opposed to support units, like intelligence, supply, truck drivers, etc. It's the guys with guns, in that former group, who some military leaders held up as a reason to keep DADT in place. In December 2010, Marine Corps commandant Gen. James Amos argued that "assimilating openly homosexual Marines into the tightly woven fabric of our combat units has strong potential for disruption." Amos warned combat units with gay soldiers could see more casualties — more Marines without legs. Army chief of staff Gen. George Casey Jr. argued against "a major cultural and policy change in the middle of a war," citing a Pentagon survey that "clearly states that over 40 percent of our combat arms soldiers believe" a gay soldier in their ranks would hurt effectiveness, trust, and morale. Arizona Sen. John McCain, a war hero, said, "the closer we get to service members in combat, the more we encounter concerns on whether 'don't ask, don't tell' should be repealed." South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said DADT "is about effectiveness on the battlefield during a time of war."
Merrill watched that debate closely. Born in Detroit, he grew up in a religious family, in which the men were mostly in the ministry, not the military. He'd gone to college, worked in law enforcement and as an emergency medical tech, and owned his own photography studio. In July 2011, President Obama and the Defense Department sent a letter to Congress certifying that the military was ready for DADT to end. Merrill went to the recruiter that same month, and in January 2012, at the age of 25, he headed to Fort Benning, Georgia as an 11B, an infantryman. "This is going to sound crazy, but I enjoyed basic training," Merrill says. "I would do it all over again if I could pick the people I could do it with."
In a way, Merrill encountered the attitudes that Amos and others warned about. The guys in basic training were "very infantry, very hooah … everyone tries to show they're the biggest, they're the toughest." And part of that means talking about women. Merrill didn't come out in basic, but because he was neat and because he didn't talk about girls, rumors started. A kid from Brooklyn (who "thought he was cultured") asked who Merrill was dating. "I said, 'I don't have a girlfriend.' That started it."
Basic training is where you learn how to shoot and fight and work together and obey commands and be all that you can be. Teaching that involves enforcing rigid conformity that is unimaginable to normal people who put a lot of effort into quirky Twitter bios. It's a thing in the Army to say, "This isn't Burger King. You can't have it your way." Or, "so-and-so wants to be an individual." Everyone is going to notice the tiniest things that make you different.
When Merrill's uniform was perfectly neat, with no strings hanging, the other guys attributed that to him being gay. When they wanted to haze him, they'd steal his pillow, or push his mattress on the floor. They harassed and threatened him. They wrote "faggot" and "gay mom" on his weapon. They noticed he had a friend — his best friend of 12 years — in another platoon, and that sometimes they would check in with each other in 30-second conversations. "Eventually they caught on to that," Merrill says. "I had to stop contact with him so he wouldn't get the same treatment."
For the most part, only fellow recruits gave him a hard time. There was the lieutenant colonel singled him out — in a good way, this time — to carry sandbags. "With some people you can sense they respect you as a person," Merrill says. And then there was Drill Sergeant Pettit, who took Merrill aside and said, "Someday they will realize you did everything they did and outperformed them." To Merrill, it meant, "I am not holding who you are against your job." Merrill would think back on those words when his treatment in the Army got worse. Because basic training was not the low point.
After graduating, Merrill was sent to Fort Hood, Texas. After going through the days-long paperwork process, he arrived at Second Platoon. "From that point, for the next 45 minutes, I was standing at parade rest while my platoon leader began the verbal harassment," Merrill says. "It was their way of saying, 'you're not going to be part of the team.' … When your squad leader and team leader treat you like that, it trickles down. … As the Army saying goes, 'shit rolls down hill.' If my platoon sergeant can say this, my squad leader, my team leader, so can everyone else. Before long it just creates a very hostile work environment." And so that became his daily treatment.
One of the worst moments came after a big battalion formation — a gathering of several hundred troops — in the motor pool, the big outdoor area usually used to fix big vehicles. After that, there was a company formation, and then a platoon formation — this means smaller and smaller subunits getting talks from smaller and smaller bosses. Tons of people were milling around during platoon formation when Merrill's platoon leader called him out in front of everyone. "He calls me out in from of 50 people for wearing the wrong boots," Merrill says. "Nine people were wearing the same boots. I'd seen them in the list as authorized."
Remember: in the military, the conformity thing is a big deal. There are officially authorized boots, and there are boots that look nearly identical but are not authorized. If your boots are off regs, you can get in trouble. These rules can vary from company to company. The rules change all the time, and sometimes seemingly for no reason. (You might have read about this kind of thing in Catch-22.)
But Merrill's boots were not really the platoon sergeant's point as his harangue lurched to homosexuality. "He was saying, 'Being gay and being in the Army is fucked up. Being gay and wanting to be married is fucked up.'" Many people outside his platoon could hear. "One, I felt my privacy was violated. And two, I had not officially come out to anyone. He was announcing it for me."
"So I got to tell my team leader and squad leader, and they're wearing the same boots," Merrill says. He didn't mention the gay thing. Later, the platoon sergeant took him aside in the chow hall and told him, "I'm not going to apologize, but you're going to say I apologized." And he continued his lectures on gays. "In the real Army — the old Army not the new Army — they wouldn't let you in," the platoon sergeant told Merrill. "He said that you as a gay person are a disgrace to the uniform." He asked Merrill, "Do you have anything to say?"
"Yes, I find this offensive," Merrill said. "I just want to do my duties." He had two more face-to-face encounters with the platoon sergeant. It got to him. He had trouble eating and sleeping. But three other things happened around the same time that kept Merrill from feeling helpless. One, he took a break one day, walked into a field, and sat in some tall grasses. An older married guy from his squad came out to see him. Lighting his a cigarette, he said, "I can tell something's on your mind... Regarding the way they they treat you — you are who you are. And until you can accept it, they won't either."
"Up until that point, I had refused to accept it myself," Merrill explains. "I was not 'out' because I refused to be limited by labels. I knew what I had been fighting inside for a long time, but I struggled to accept the truth."
The second thing that help was that Merrill's squad leader pushed him to see a counselor. After many meetings, the counselor eventually asked, "Are you gay, straight, or bi?" Merrill hesitated. "I wasn't sure I wanted to answer," he says, because "I wasn't accepting of myself, and I didn't want others to change how they treated me." But the counselor had the same message as the guy from his squad: you are who you are.
And three, Merrill went to a crisis chaplain. "He said, 'In my religion, we're against homosexuality. But we do teach respect for people across the board.'" And that, too, was huge for Merrill, because so much of his family is in the Christian ministry, and believe that "being gay means you're eternally damned." "So hearing a chaplain would really go to bat for you — to say this is not appropriate, to be very supportive, to be willing and ready to be involved — confirmed for me that there are people who respect the system."
But Merrill was realistic. He didn't want to make an official complaint about his platoon sergeant. "People are not going to be friends with me if they know it would make the platoon sergeant look bad," Merrill said. He already wasn't getting invites for weekend fishing trips or barbecues. "No one is going to do anything to jeopardize themselves on your behalf." But the chaplain could informally say something.
And Merrill did something else to take control of what was happening to him: He kept a diary. He knew documentation was important. For almost seven months, he kept track of all the dates and times when someone harassed him about being gay.
After a few more incidents, an Equal Opportunity representative showed up. (The Army has a kind of in-house structure to deal with discrimination based on race, sex, religion, etc.) Merrill wasn't sure he could trust the EO rep, so he released a trial balloon — floating a little bit of information to see where it would go. The EO rep was the first person he told about the diary. Within five minutes, Merrill's platoon sergeant and squad leader came into him, demanding to know where the notebook was. Which meant that "within five minutes I knew the EO rep was not to be trusted," Merrill says. The NCOs had already joked that he was CID — the Army's internal investigations division. "My platoon sergeant asked, why are you trying to play undercover cop?" Merrill says he told them he had to:
"Who's going to believe me? You're in 17 years, I've been in a few months...' I'd already heard the argument, 'How dare you accuse the platoon sergeant? He's been in 12 years, he's deployed — you don't know what he's seen! ...
All of a sudden he was like, 'Oh.'"
It wasn't just the homophobia that angered Merrill. It was also, he thought, a failure to live up to the standards set by the military. "When a senior leader doesn't uphold Army values, why would Joes?" he says. "It wasn't an organizational thing, it was a personal thing. The platoon sergeant was of the old regime, a buddy-buddy good old guy."
And then there was a new regime. In the late fall, Merrill got a new commanding officer and first sergeant, and was moved from Second Platoon to Headquarters Platoon. When he got the news, he was nervous. "It was like a shotgun blast to the face. I wondered, Have the rumors spread? Am I being moved because I'm gay?" But First Sergeant Christopher Clark met with Merrill face-to-face, and told him, "I don't care if you're straight as long as you can shoot straight." Clark said, "The first moment anyone says anything anti-gay, come to me. The first moment anyone treats you like less of a person because you're gay, we'll squash it."
In an email from Afghanistan, Clark says he "did what I thought was right as per the guidance in regards to the policy, and did what I would want someone to do for me if I were in the same position as SPC Merrill." He wanted each soldier to feel comfortable, and to build trust. "It is almost impossible to see or hear everything that goes on within a group of Soldiers as large as a company, I wanted SPC Merrill to know that he would be treated as every other Soldier would be treated and that if he was not I needed to know." Merrill's commanding officer, Captain John Mahre, describes Merrill as "a good and conscientious soldier that makes a meaningful operational contribution to this Company every single day."
Slowly, Merrill's fellow soldiers opened up. They followed the example set by new leadership. For a while, some soldiers wouldn't carry a box with him — if he picked up one end, they would put it down, and ask for someone else's help. One supply sergeant was known for making jokes, and was constantly teasing Merrill at work. "One night, I was working 'til 2 a.m. and still working when he came in and he started on me." Merrill hadn't yet come out to Headquarters Platoon. "So I turned around and said, 'And so what if I am, sergeant? So what if I am gay?' The look of shock on his face!" The supply sergeant started apologizing, Merrill said it was okay, because they could both laugh. Now people ask questions. "Even today someone asked me, 'So what is Pride?' I was like, you don't know??"
Merrill's coming out has not yet completely washed away the stereotypes. "There are still some people that don't understand. They still look at you as gay = female," he says. (Merrill, for the record, favors letting women in combat, as long as they can perform at the same level.) "People think, 'Oh they're gay, so they can't do this' ... You're constantly fighting — Yes, I can do a sub-13 2-mile, I can shoot expert" (a measure of marksmanship).
I first spoke with Merrill in July; by late October, the news of his sexuality had slowly made its way around the company. Merrill said in an email:
Overall, it's been an eye-opening experience for sure. Some people have denied my being gay. Which I find very comical. They say 'but he's (me) normal and acts pretty normal.' I just laugh now.
I asked Clark, Merrill's first sergeant, how he'd felt when DADT was repealed. "I was skeptical about the policy change because I had never seen the Army any other way," he replied. "Not skeptical in a bad way, just not sure what the reaction was going to be as a whole." It would work out in the long run, he thought, but "it was the initial reaction that I was unsure about." As the end of DADT approached, the Army did enough educational programs that Clark felt more confident soldiers would take it in stride.
So now that Merrill had fully come out to his fellow soldiers, he had to come out to his family. As tough as it was to come out in the Army, "they're probably more supportive, more hey-be-who-you-are than even my family is." He knew that he would come out to them while deployed, and told them by phone early this fall. It didn't quite sink in. He had to send a follow-up email. His father responded with a long email — a seven-page thesis, Merrill calls it. "It's kind of like saying, "I love you comma but dot dot dot..." He adds, "You know how they say you can't choose your relatives but you can choose your family?"
"I would love to stay in the Army," he says, because he got new leaders who explicitly said they would not treat him special and exactly like everyone else. And that's why Merrill believes — unlike many of the people who opposed repealing DADT — that the system works, and that people who don't uphold Army values will be made to stop. "It is possible to be gay and serve your country," he says. "It might be a little rough, but you can serve your country."