03 August, 2007

Speaking Truth to Power: The Story of Ms. X

Nico recently posted about a serious—and totally avoidable—problem in the US military: the firing of highly skilled Arabic-speaking soldiers because of their violation of "don't ask, don't tell". This post struck a personal chord with me. Like many, I find this policy to be problematic to say the least. Unlike most people, however, I actually know one of the linguists in question. Let's call her Ms. X.

Ms. X and I first met in 2004. We quickly became friends, and in 2006, she contributed a wonderfully moving interview to be used in my composition Soldier Songs. At one point in the interview, she told the story of her separation from the military. The exchange seems somehow important to share and so, with her permission, I have paraphrased it below.

Ms. X was at the top of her class in military language school. She had recently been promoted to the rank of Sergeant, for which she was sent to Sergeant school. At the opening convocation, the Commandant told the in-coming class something to the effect of: "If you have any reason that you think you shouldn't be here, you've got until 9 pm tonight to let me know. After that, there is no turning back." Later that night, after some serious thought, Ms. X went to the Commandant's office. Tired of living a lie, she took a deep breath, knocked on the door, and entered.

After the obligatory salutes and yes-sir/no-sir greetings, Ms. X told the Commandant that she was gay. The Commandant turned to his right-hand man: "First Sergeant, did you hear what this Sergeant just said?" The First Sergeant replied: "No Commandant, I didn’t hear a thing." The Commandant turned back to Ms. X and said: "Sergeant, I am going to give you a chance to unsay what you just said." Yet she restated her piece. "You realize what this means, Sergeant?" he asked. Affirmative.

Ms. X was immediately removed from the barracks and went home to her girlfriend, another military linguist. She received an honorable discharge—she "told"; it's only dishonorable if they "catch" you—and left the military life behind. It is worth mentioning that Ms. X’s separation became official in September, 2001. Had she remained silent, there seems little doubt that she would currently be serving her country, likely stationed in the Middle East.

There are many different types of bravery in this world, especially when considering the military. One of my uncles jumped out of a plane into the jungles of Laos. Another was abandoned by his helicopter in the jungles of Vietnam, surrounded by Viet Cong. A good friend from high school acted as a makeshift medic in Iraq after the lead HUMVEE in his caravan struck an IED. These are brave acts performed by brave individuals. Few would contest this.

Ms. X is equally brave. And although one could argue that her bravery is of a different sort, to me, it is no less honorable. She possessed the courage to speak truth to power. How many of us can honestly say we have done that in as direct a manner, and at such high stakes?

1 comment:

danielle said...

I need to hear this story stat!