In a time of war, a good man is hard to find.
Which makes it all the more frustrating that the U.S. military continues to dismiss and deter good men and women for the simple fact that they are gay or lesbian under the so-called "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.
Brian Fricke was one of those men who decided that after five years the secret of his service had to end.
A tall Tennessean with an easy grin and aw-shucks manner overlaying a strong sense of loyalty and duty, Fricke appears every bit the Marine Corps Sergeant. Joining the military as a 19-year-old fresh out of high school, he quickly left his Knoxville roots behind for the more urban and adventurous ports of San Diego and Okinawa.
It was in San Diego that Fricke met his partner, Brad. Not long after, he found himself on an eight-month tour of duty in Iraq, where the tension between his secret life and military duty finally reached a point where he had to make a choice. After coming out to a circle of friends and family, his choice was made -- to live his life openly, outside the military.
Now living in D.C. with his partner, Fricke volunteers for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, and will be one of the speakers this Saturday, May 13, at "Strength in Numbers," the group's 14th Annual National Dinner. Even though Fricke completed his service without being ensnared in DADT, SLDN still offered a harbor when things seemed uncertain.
"I didn't make contact with them until a friend of mine got spooked about being investigated," he says. "At one point I got kind of spooked, too. There's a great survival guide [at SLDN] -- what can you do, what can you not do -- that's a great tool."
Reflecting its role as both a lifeline to active soldiers and a leader in the battle to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," SLDN's dinner will also feature Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy, U.S. Army (Ret.), and will present the Randy Shilts Visibility Award to Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.).
Despite the military's and government's insistence on maintaining its anti-gay policy, the stories of Fricke and other gay and lesbian servicemembers continue to show how committed many in the community are to serving their country. They also show what a country loses when it chooses to discard the good men and women that are so hard to find.
METRO WEEKLY: Did you know you were gay when you were growing up?
BRIAN FRICKE: I think I knew around 12 -- that coming of age, becoming aware of what you are attracted to is pretty common. Then it was bottled up until I went into the service. [I grew up in] a very Christian home, there wasn't a lot of outlet for it. The only outlet was the Internet. And I was good with computers -- that's what I do today, networking stuff, so that kind of put me there [when I joined the Marines]. Otherwise maybe I would have just played football and gone to college [in Tennessee], but I wanted to get out of there. I saw the recruiter in high school and I thought ''I could do that.''
MW: So you knew you were gay and the military is what got you out of your small town? That's a different kind of story than people might expect.
FRICKE: I didn't realize what the Marine Corps was until I saw the recruiter. When you're a kid you're not aware of the different branches and the global impacts they all have. All I knew was I didn't want to go to school anymore. I was tired of school and I had to do something. I was going to be a police officer -- I thought it would be fun, but you had to be 21 to carry a gun and I wasn't going to wait. So I figured I'd join the Marine Corps. I saw the recruiter, he looked good in his uniform. But there wasn't anything sexual about it -- when I joined, my sexuality was still kind of suppressed.
MW: Was there anything the recruiter was telling you about the Marines that appealed to you or was it just a chance to get out?
FRICKE: I talked to a couple of different recruiters. Every time the Navy recruiter said, ''See the world,'' I was thinking, ''Yeah, from the bottom of a boat.'' I didn't want to do that. The Marine Corps was the most difficult one. I think the difficulty and the challenge of it was what made me join. The Marines take ground. We're typically the first ones in. The Army holds the ground -- or loses it, and then we take it back for them. [Laughs.] So the Air Force is [about] air superiority and the Navy is mostly water, but we work as a team. They each do their part.
As soon as I was 18 I had signed up and I was on the program where you meet with the recruiters and [other recruits] before you go to boot camp. Until then I had never run three miles at a time, so you start running and doing push-ups and doing the things you're going to do in boot camp. I was in the closet in high school, but it still hadn't dawned on me that the suppression is the same in the military with the ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' policy.
MW: That would have been around 1999. Did you just not know about ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell?''
FRICKE: I don't think I cared. After I understood the military's role and I had a grasp of the Marine Corps, I was like, ''That's something I want to be a part of.'' I'm not this overly-patriotic American, but I love my country and this is a good way to give back. It gives me time to figure out what I want to do and, in the meantime, I'm giving back to the nation.
The one time it came up and was in the Marine Military Enlistment Processing Center. It was a form about the ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' policy -- you had to sign that you understand that you can't ask, you can't tell, you can't pursue, you can't harass. It wasn't very profound. I just signed it. I didn't care.
MW: How did your first few months in the military go?
FRICKE: Well, when they drove us from Knoxville down to Parris Island, S.C., for boot camp, we got in a car wreck on the way there. It was like an adventure from the get-go. I did boot camp for three months, then went to combat training at Camp Lejeune [N.C.]. That's when I got homesick.
I went to Pensacola, Fla., for nine months for school, then three months in helicopter school before I got my first duty station in San Diego. I was really excited. It's like, ''I'm gay, and now I get to be in a big city.'' I had my first experience in the military while I was in Pensacola.
MW: You mean your first gay experience?
FRICKE: Yeah, it was a sailor I met on AOL. It was pretty sleazy, in his car, and it was the first time I had done anything. It was very exciting, very new, a rush. Of course, after that there were all these feelings, like "I don't know what's going on." But I had to go back -- you gotta do your job.
I met him a few times after, then he ended up leaving and I went to San Diego. After a few months there, I went to Japan for a year. That's when I realized that there are a lot of people in the military who are gay. There was a gay bar. A local Okinawan ran it and it was called S&B -- Sisters and Bitches, I'll never forget it. The people who went were the ones based [in Okinawa]. They were regulars because it was the only place you could go to be yourself. I met all kinds of [military] people because it was a joint service island.
That was the first time I had ever experienced that kind of camaraderie among the service members. But I was still very much alone. You need at least one person to talk to and be yourself around, and it turned out I worked with a guy who was gay. A regular [at S&B] told me -- I was shocked. So the next day I found Leonardo [on the base]. I just peeked in and I said, ''Have you ever heard of the S&B?'' He was probably freaking out. I was a corporal at the time and he was a lance corporal, [but that's] not a drastic difference. The next day I mentioned it again and he said, ''I've been there.''
We ended up being best friends. We never said ''I'm gay.'' We never said it, but you just knew at that point. We became roommates and were roommates until he got out [of the service].
I'm not saying you should deny who you are and suppress it, but I've learned that if you are a little more flamboyant, people are going to see that and identify that and know that you're gay. Some people might say, ''That's stupid, you should always be who you are and not care what people think.'' Well, that's fine and dandy, but when you're in the military....
I didn't have gay friends growing up and maybe if I did I might be a little different with my mannerisms and the way I speak -- but I'm this way. And again, I was in the military for five years -- anybody who knew that I was gay always knew me first for who I was and when I told them [I'm gay] they didn't believe me. They'd say ''you're kidding me.'' They totally are taken aback because you shatter their stereotype. I think that that's what makes people a little uncomfortable about being around gay people. I've heard people say that they can smell a fag a mile away and I'm like, ''Yeah, I bet you can.'' A few minutes later you tell them and they're like, ''Oh, really, that's cool. I didn't know that.'' So you totally shatter their stereotype and it's a good feeling and then the next day everything is normal at work. I never had a bad experience where somebody freaked out and was no longer my friend. [But] I actually didn't come out to my parents or anybody else until I was in Iraq.
MW: So you did come out to some people while you were still in the military?
FRICKE: In Japan I didn't have to because I had a best friend and a roommate who was gay so we could hang out and do things and no one would be the wiser. No one knew he was gay, no one knew I was gay and it was fine. [But] when I was in Iraq and things were really getting hairy, that's when you start having an internal dialogue about your spirituality. I had already met Brad [in San Diego], who I'm still with today. I realized that if I died out here my parents won't know who I am. They are really proud of me, but they won't know who I am. And when Brad shows up and my friends show up at my funeral, God forbid, they're not going to know who those people are. They had no clue.
I wrote this pretty long dissertation kind of thing that I sent out to everybody on my e-mail distribution list. I told them that I was gay and I told them why I'm telling them now. I sent the e-mail and [my parents] responded, not supporting the lifestyle but saying they loved me. I respected their opinion. They respected mine.
MW: Were you concerned that any authorities would see your e-mail? Weren't they subject to being read?
FRICKE: I was in the computer side so I had more access to the Internet, but I did think about that. But I figured phone calls were more monitored than e-mail. So if they wanted to snag that one e-mail and then attack me for it, especially with my pretty pristine record so far -- I weighed all the options and I figured if I get repercussions I get repercussions. There's a point where you just have to do something. So I did it.
MW: Does it feel reckless in hindsight?
FRICKE: A little bit, but there were no consequences. And I can live with consequence, but I can't live with regret.
MW: When you were in Iraq, did you have contact with Brad?
FRICKE: We e-mailed and he sent me packages and his mom and his sister would send me stuff. I was over the part about being afraid that Big Brother's looking at my e-mail. I think they had bigger fish to fry. Maybe they knew and they couldn't do anything about it, maybe they didn't want to, I don't know.
MW: Given the wartime situation, do you think the military is more often turning a blind eye to these things?
FRICKE: Yes. We would joke about it among gay military people. During a time of peace, if you say ''I'm gay,'' they freak out. [During war,] someone has told their [commanding officer] ''I'm gay,'' and he's said, ''Okay, so you're gay. Now get back to work.'' I'm sure that's happened. Although [DADT] is a blanket policy, I think it's enforced to different degrees. I think the Army is much more homophobic because there are more cases where the Army has had incidents with gay military members. Maybe it's just me personally who learned about those and not others. I know that all branches have had incidents.
Some people are tired of suppressing it and they come out, but the military still won't kick them out. Other people are hunted down and kicked out. It really depends on the individual command. If they would lift this ban, people aren't going to start doing drag and have gay parades down military streets. It's not going to happen like that. It's just that people aren't going to be kicked out all the time and a lot of people who are gay would probably join and bring a lot of talent to the military. I think we [as gay people] are forced to excel or maybe we're a little more driven than your average straight counterparts. Not that they're any worse or we're any better, but we feel like we have to be more productive to blend in or to be equal.
MW: Based on your own experience, how do you think the straight people in the military would react if DADT went away?
FRICKE: In the military it's not about the people. It's about mission accomplishment and then troop welfare. If you don't get along with some other guy, it doesn't matter. In fact, the officer is going to make you rack buddies and make you be around each other and make you get over your discontent. Wherever you go, there are people that don't get along with other people. And it doesn't matter, you're going to work with that person regardless. And if the ban were to lift, you're going to get that.
I think the biggest issue might be the fiscal issue. Are the people who got kicked out under DADT going to get compensation? Are they going to be allowed to re-join? Would someone who got kicked out in 1990 because he was gay but had an injury from the Gulf War be paid all that 16 years worth of military benefits? I think that could be a big factor that people don't see because they're thinking, ''Lift the ban, it's about freedom and equality.'' Of course, I totally agree. I think this is the last bit of blatant discrimination in our society, but there are a lot of repercussions to lifting the ban. People are going to want to be paid or something. People went through a lot of emotional distress for being kicked out. I think that might be a huge hook in keeping that ban in place.
MW: Why did you leave?
FRICKE: I didn't want to live that life of secrecy any more. I did my time. I went to Iraq. I would have gone back to Iraq but I was with Brad and I wanted to be with him completely. If it were just me as a single, gay Marine, I might have stayed. But I think I was ready to be done with that kind of suppression. And there are people who are generals who have been in for a long time and they've suppressed that, but typically they're a little more old school. I think a lot of the younger generation is more expressive and they don't stay in. I can't speak for everybody, but that's just my experience.
MW: Since you were there, what do you think about the news we see about the war in Iraq?
FRICKE: I don't watch the news much, but I think we might have gone in for the wrong reasons. We've done a lot of good stuff there. We've made a lot of mistakes there. [The situation] is very multifaceted, it's hard to sum it up in one little thing, but I know that the people I dealt with when I was there were happy for us to be there. We see on the news all this horrible death and destruction and something needs to change. But we have done a lot of good stuff: running water, power, sanitation, medical. I don't know about the oil thing. Is it all about oil, all about money, all about long-term grudges? I don't know.
MW: Were you ever a part of a unit that was attacked?
FRICKE: Although I did a lot of computer-based support, I was an aerial observer and I flew with the helicopters and did the missions. We were in it a few times. We also got mortar attacks into the compound on the base. There were a lot of times when you were exposed -- it wasn't just in the desert on a red hot day. It is actually war.
We would deliver supplies -- we'd get there, unload everything, push things out of the back, and then we were out. I didn't have to worry about politics or the war, I was there supporting my fellow Marines. I didn't have to deal with, ''Oh, I accidentally took out a school house.'' A lot of people have to do those daily decisions where they're taking lives, a me-or-them type of thing. But I didn't have to do that.
There was one time when we were delivering supplies and we had to refuel. We got a call that was supposed to be for the Black Hawks, but they couldn't refuel in time. So they sent us on reconnaissance -- just fly around and see this white truck with an unknown anti-aircraft something in the back. So we were looking for this white truck in the middle of the desert and we fly over this little shanty town, probably as big as Dupont Circle. The truck drives right into it and stops. We come in low -- we were very low, it's called "turfing" when you're that low -- and I'm on the ramp with a ramp gun and when we fly over it begins. In that moment, it's like in the movies, very surreal. All of a sudden you can't hear -- there's no sound and it's very chaotic. Very calm but chaotic. That's an experience that they can never take away from me. And I was gay -- my bullets were doing the same thing the straight guy's bullets were doing. We were doing what we had to do. When I think of those things, it's kind of fundamental. I did the same job he did.
Again, I think we might have gone in for the wrong reasons. The benefit of being in the military was that you didn't have to have an opinion. When people voted for this person, the people's decisions led us to be here, so I'm here for the people, not for the president's agenda. And I was supporting the Marines in delivering water and food and things to the forward operating bases. You all sent us there. I was supporting them.
MW: What would you tell a gay 18-year old who was thinking about going into the military?
FRICKE: I would say, do it. Do your research. Look at your long-term goals. I would say I'm biased toward the computer industry, but you can get set up very well with experience. You can do anything. If you don't want to work, if you make it hard on yourself, it's gonna be a rough trip and you might get out kind of bitter. But if you do what you're supposed to do and be where you're supposed to be, when you're supposed to be, and make it a symbiotic relationship, you're going to love the military.
MW: Even if you're gay?
FRICKE: Even if you're gay. I had a very symbiotic relationship. I'm not bitter from my experience. Had I done things differently and maybe come out or acted in different ways, it could have caused me to take a different path. My mom always told me, ''Choose joy.'' Even if everything is horrible and you hate life, if you just choose joy you choose to be happy. You really can get through anything. Just choose joy.
The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network's 14th Annual National Dinner, "Strength in Numbers," will be held Saturday, May 13, 7 p.m. at the Washington Renaissance Hotel. For details and ticket information visit www.sldn.org/events.