Remember our LGBT Dead on Memorial Day
By Tom Carpenter
On Monday, March 22, after attending the Forum on the Military Chaplaincy meeting in Washington DC on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Art and I decided to spend some time visiting some of those who have gone before us who are interred at Arlington National Cemetery.
The first was Major Alan Rogers, an ordained pastor, a U.S. Army Major and Intelligence Officer. Alan loved the Army and had quietly worked with SLDN [Servicemembers Legal Defense Network] and AVER [American Veterans for Equal Rights] to repeal “Don”t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He was adopted and his parents died before he was killed. Alan’s nearest relative, a cousin refused to make public the fact that he was gay. He was the first known gay combat fatality of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Mindful of our Shabbat service the Friday before our meeting, I decided to follow a Jewish tradition by placing a stone on Alan’s grave, saying his name and praying for him.
Next, Art and I climbed a hill above the cemetery where two of my best friends rest. Both were classmates of mine from the Naval Academy and Marine Pilots. Lowell was killed in a helicopter crash in Okinawa and was survived by a wife and one son.
Buried next to Lowell was Dave King. We were in the same squadron, Marine Attack Squadron 331. He was killed in a crash of an A-4 Skyhawk during a night low-level bombing training mission while we were deployed to MCAS Yuma. We owned a home together in Beaufort and he was one of my best friends. He knew about my relationship with a Marine Naval Flight Officer, Courtand Hirschi, who was my longtime companion and partner until he died in 1992. I recall from the day before Dave was killed, an especially poignant story.
I had just won the bombing and strafing competition for the entire 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing and had landed my Skyhawk and taxied back to the flightline. The entire squadron was there with Champagne at the ready to celebrate my win. As I jumped off the ladder from the cockpit, Dave ran over to me and threw his arms around me to give me a big hug. I pushed him away and before the rest of the Marines arrived on a run said quietly to him, “Never do that again, if the come for me, they will suspect you and since we live together will think you are gay. ” Dave was a special man, who had already been accepted to medical school, and had planned on returning as a flight surgeon once he had finished training. His death was a great personal loss for me and I am certain a loss for the Corps and our country.
You cannot see the view from his grave very well, but to the right is the Pentagon, and in the distance you can see the Washington monument and Capitol dome. As a pilot, I thought this site was so appropriate because you could hear and see the planes talking off from National Airport.
From Arlington we walked to the Pentagon to spend some time at the 911 Memorial. For those of you have never been there, it is worth the trip. The memorial has a bench for each victim, both those in the Pentagon and on the American Airline Flight 77. The first bench is for the youngest victim, age 3,and as you go deeper into the memorial you follow a timeline with the years of birth of all those killed going back in time to the oldest person, who was 73. On one side is a wall that starts out at only a few inches and the height increases to represent the age and lifetime of the each victim. The benches are oriented so that when you read the name of the decedent you can determine if he/she was on the aircraft or in the building. If you are facing the Pentagon as you read the name, then the victim was in the building and the converse for those on the aircraft. It was particularly chilling and moving to find the Captain’s memorial bench because it was placed in the center line of the fatal flight path.
This memorial bench is dedicated to Naval Academy grad Charles Burlingame III, who was the Captain of American Airlines FLT 77. It is looking directly into the fatal flight path, which was right over the USAF memorial.
I wanted to share this with all of you because these men are part of my inspiration to do the task we have volunteered to undertake: to fight to change our country to a place were all people are truly equal. These heroes all died way too early, and when I consider how much I have been blessed, I thank God for giving me the time, skills, energy and persistence to make some small contribution in this historic battle for real democracy.
Thank you – servicemembers everywhere – for all you have done and will continue to do, especially for those who are still serving in silence.