In addition to well-known and outspoken gay veterans like Leonard Matlovich, who was one of the first servicemen to publicly challenge the military’s ban on gays, Capt. Michael Rankin says he will be thinking about other fallen veterans during ”Honoring Our Fallen,” a memorial service for GLBT veterans, scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 11, at Matlovich’s gravesite at the Congressional Cemetery in Southeast.
Those fallen heroes include the many gay men Rankin encountered during his 34 years of service in the navy, most of whom he counseled as a navy medical officer.
They include Eli, a religious sailor who tried to commit suicide by jumping over a fence onto a minefield during a softball game in the early ’60s.
”The chaplain on our ship was Presbyterian and was really very cool,” Rankin says. ”If I had been able to refer Eli to him it would have been fine, but he was on leave, and the kid was Protestant and I referred him to the Protestant chaplain on base. Who knew he would tell him that ‘God would indeed send him to hell for his homosexual feelings’?”
Eli didn’t die that day, Rankin says.
Another sailor jumped over the fence and held him down until a map of the minefield was used to get them both out.
”Everybody was appalled,” Rankin recalls. ”Nobody knew the gay connection. I was the only one who knew that.”
To this day, not keeping in touch with Eli remains Rankin’s ”greatest regret.”
”I gave him my address and phone number but I never heard from him again.”
Interviewing sailors to determine whether they were gay or not for potential discharge wasn’t a particularly easy thing to do for Rankin, who is gay and was not out at the time.
”I didn’t come out until I came back from Vietnam, and while I was counseling them, I was thinking I know what they’re going through, I know they’re gay and I’m gay, too, I just don’t know what to do about it. So I just maintained this facade of neutrality on the issue.”
Rankin maintained that facade when he counseled Mickey, another gay sailor he encountered.
”I’m actually going to read one of his poems at the service,” he says. ”I wrote a letter of condolence to his mother when he had died and she sent it to me. She said, ‘This is what he sent, with his last Christmas letter to the family.”’
The two men were friends while serving, and Rankin says it was upon discovering Mickey’s name on the Vietnam Wall in early 2001, when he decided to organize a memorial service for GBLT veterans.
The Arlington Gay and Lesbian Alliance (AGLA) and the American Veterans for Equal Rights organized Sunday’s service.
Daniel Hays, a legislative analyst for the Department of Labor who volunteers as the president of AGLA, says the memorial aims to honor those ”who have given the ultimate sacrifice” despite the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy.
Hays plans to sing the National Anthem on Sunday.
”It will have a definite special meaning in that having the ability to sing at an event like this recognizing those who gave the ultimate the price, whether they died in battle or are deceased veterans,” Hays says.
”It’s just as much showing appreciation for what they did, as it’s also about trying to ensure that everyone has the right to serve their country.”
”Many times individuals that are not part of our community and that are not a normal ally may not necessarily perceive us as being patriotic and loving our country,” he adds. ”We are patriotic individuals. We do love our country. We just think that we should be able to be treated fairly and allowed for everyone to be able to serve their country openly rather than lie about it.”
”Honoring Our Fallen” is scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 11, at the Congressional Cemetery, 1801 E. St. SE. For more information contact Capt. Michael Rankin Navydocnova@aol.com.