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."