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One Marine’s Blog and “The Laramie Project: 10 years later”

April 4, 2012

According to big bang cosmology the universe came into existence approximately 14 billion years ago from the violent explosion of a singularity, which has continued to cool and expand over time to become what we know it to be today — the venue of life. While big bang theory still evokes tremendous controversy, largely because it conflicts with most religious creation theories and religion heavily influences many people’s world view, many scientists consider Penzias’s and Wilson’s discovery in 1965 to be the definitive evidence that big bang theory is — at the very least — the right direction of thought on the birth of the cosmos. What Penzias and Wilson discovered, in essence, was the echo of the big bang. Billions of years later, we were able to listen to — and reflect on — the explosion that sparked life.

In 1998, having felt a near total sense of misdirection for months—maybe years (I was having the kind of fun one has when he’s lost), I joined the Navy. I originally spoke to the Army recruiter. My father served in Vietnam with the Army and my brother Gerhard has been in the Army since he graduated high school in the 80s.

It only took me one short visit with the Army recruiter and I opted to enlist in the Navy.

I had visions of parallel parking a massive, nuclear-war vessel into some exotic port, slapping my hands together in that “done and done” sort of way, and then flighting to the nearest off-limits-ally-bar for booze and debauchery; the 21-year-old’s version of running off with a circus.

At boot camp I was informed that I was being sent to advanced training to be a Hospital Corpsman. As soon as that training was complete I would spend the next five years with the United States Marine Corps as an infantry combat medic, or 8404. It was a strange twist of fate. I never parked an aircraft carrier (I toured one once) and I don’t want to comment too much on my overseas antics.

So what does any of this have to do with a blog and “The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later”?

Matthew Shepard was killed in the fall of 1998 while I was at Hospital Corps School in Great Lakes, Ill. I do not remember hearing anything about his death. By the time the trial was taking place I was with my infantry unit at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Again, I do not remember hearing anything about it. Finally, I had just returned from a six month deployment to Europe and parts of Africa when “The Laramie Project” was spreading Matthew’s story across our nation but once again, I didn’t know anything about it. I was sheltered from such information. Not by any law or instruction, but from the social environment I was in.

Now, many years later, I have seen “The Laramie Project” film produced by HBO and “The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later” performed by members of Crimson Masque and directed by senior History/Theatre major Abigail Davis. Both triggered a lot of reflection. But one thing that has really caused me to consider the impact of how our society views homosexuality has been the recent repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) by the Department of Defense, as I am forever bound by blood with the US Marine Corp — my surrogate parent for half a decade. So when professor Michael Harrison of the Modern Foreign Languages department told me about a Marine friend of his who blogs his experiences of coming out while on active duty I wasted little time getting to a computer to investigate. What I found left a tremendous impression on me.

The blog is called “Work in Progress; My ramblings about life and my journey through it” and the author is a United States Marine Corps Captain Matthew Phelps, currently stationed at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, Calif. I read the entire blog in a single sitting.

I sought to get an interview with Capt. Phelps and was able to obtain one over the phone.The first thing I noticed about Capt. Phelps was that he was definitely a Marine officer. Not just in title, but in the way he carried himself — in his voice and diction. In military speak: his bearing was impeccable and reminded me not of every officer I worked with, but everyone I respected; connecting was effortless.

Matthew Phelps joined the Marines in 2002 following the events of September 11, 2001.

“For me it was almost entirely out of patriotic duty,” Phelps said.

Every branch of service instills pride in its members. But the Marine Corps prides itself in being the most masculine and hard-nosed and conservative — arguably Spartan-like — branch of service. Each and every Marine is expected to put the title of rifleman first and their respective specialty second. The Marine ethic appealed to Phelps.

“I wanted a new direction. I wanted something I could be proud of,” said Phelps, “I was doing it to see if I could do it, because I knew that if I could do it the sense of pride and accomplishment would be directly related to the work I put into it. Ten years later, I believe it to be true. Nobody joins the Marine Corps to get college or get rich — they do it out of a sense of duty.”

Phelps had already earned a bachelor’s in French horn performance. He knew having a degree would afford him the opportunity to pursue a officer’s commission, but the Marine Corps had other ideas.

“I enlisted, I knew the option was there for me to go into an officer program. I was looking to be a part of the organization. Whatever the Marine Corps needed me to do, that was what I was going to do,” said Phelps, “I enlisted as a musician, though that was not my initial intention. The way it was presented to me was that you already have a skill we need and doesn’t walk in the door every day. The needs of the Marine Corps have always been at the forefront for me.”

Phelps served out an enlisted tour as a Marine musician, though it would not be where he would stay.

“I started to realize immediately that I liked the Marine Corps. I was looking for options to start moving forward. I was looking at having to change what I did. If I was going to be in a leadership position I wanted to have more of an influence beyond the small area I was on. Band leadership was not something I was interested in,” Phelps said.

“Here’s a challenge, you meet the criteria, do you have what it takes to be an officer?” Phelps continued. “If I have what it takes to be a Marine Corps officer then that is what I want to do. I was coming up on my 28th birthday and after that I would need a waver so I went forward and was selected. It worked out really well for me because I did really well in school.”

“I graduated at the top of my class so I got to pick my job, Logistics,” Phelps said. He

Phelps graduated in the top 10 of over 250 students and chose to continue on in logistics training, where  he also finished in the top of his class.

Phelps has been blogging on his experiences in the military since 2003, much of his writing having to do with being gay and an active duty service member.

“When I was looking to joining the military I was driven by the desire to serve, and this meant going down the career path that was not necessarily conducive to being gay. I had come out to my parents and friends and decided to go back into the closet to enlist. DADT made sense to me back then,” Phelps said. “I had been in the military about a month when I realized that the program was not, in practice, what it was supposed to be. The policy is not enforced the way it was supposed to be.”

Phelps paused for a moment.

“So what led to the blog was that I couldn’t discuss things with friends or family and I had all this stuff in my mind and I thought what the hell do I do with this? I started writing as a way to get that stuff out there — a way to keep my sanity,” said Phelps.

The repeal of DADT has allowed Capt. Phelps to open up about his sexuality and private life some, but he is not done blogging, though the blog is no longer his only outlet. He does feel that the structure, or approach, of his writing has changed since the repeal. Where the theme may have been life under DADT and that it was not an effective or appropriate way of handling the issue of homosexual service members, the focus has shifted to life after repeal.

“Part of what led to the frustration initially is that, even when I was talking about it, I couldn’t actually talk about it. I always wrote from a philosophical stand point, not about me personally. Post repeal, I can be more personal. My motivation is now to try and get people to understand what that policy was and what it was like live under and how important it was to get rid of it,” Phelps said.

Recently Captain Phelps gave a lecture at San Diego State University. The lecture was the first of a public lecture series called Finding Leadership Under Identity which focuses on the diversity of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Inter-sex Queer and Ally community. The lecture is available in entirety on Phelps’ blog.

We are products of our experiences. Therefore the term veteran in many ways describes a broad, yet particular, experience — whether it was for 3 or 4 years, or 20. When the Marine Corps adopts change it often evokes two emotional responses in me. Either I feel a change in myself as well, or I feel a distance from the “new” Marine Corps and the Marine Corps I was affiliated with for so many years. The repeal of DADT, though it affects all branches of service, has left me with a sense of pride. Not just in the military and the leaders who made the difficult decision, but in the country it serves. It is not just a protection force but is also a model of who we are. A model that is always on display for the rest of the world.

My daughter is a dedicated student of my actions. She is 9-years-old and rarely unconcerned with what is going on in her dad’s life. It was not surprising to me then when she asked if she could attend the Monmouth production of “The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later” with me. I had already seen the production once (the dress rehearsal) and told her I would have to think about it. This lead to a conversation about some of the themes of the epilogue, and as we talked I realized I was only prepared to have such a discussion because of my interview with Capt. Phelps and my reflection on the interview. I approached the issue, not as a choice of sexual partner, but as a matter of personal freedom and who a person chooses to share their life with, focusing on love.

I took her. I have had fun explaining that action to concerned friends and family. After the show and post-show “talk-back,” I had another conversation with my daughter. I asked her what she thought of the production, and if she felt she got anything from it.

“People should not be killed or beaten because they are gay,” she said. I pushed for more and asked her to elaborate on why she thought that (then elaborated on what I was asking for when I said elaborate). She didn’t have anything else for me and I left it at that.

Two days later, as we hunkered over the sink brushing out teeth in the early morning chaos, she finally had an answer.

“I think we are supposed to judge people’s stuff on how it affects us — if it makes you happy or sad or hurts you,” she said. “I don’t think someone being gay has anything to do with me.”

It took 14 billion years for human beings to develop the means and the mind to hear and recognize the echo of the big bang, though it was always there. It was heard and understood, at least at some level, when the timing was right. That is how knowledge seems to work. Matthew Shepard’s death was an atrocity, and I extend nothing but great empathy for him, and especially for his parents. But, the silver lining — if such an act can have one — is that his story continues to echo throughout the universe ready to be absorbed by those ready to hear it. It has become part of a sub-culture, of mass media and of art. Capt. Matthew Phelps’s blog shares this quality. I’m not sure, exactly, at what point in my life — if I’ve reached it — such experiences reach a point of saturation, but I’m glad it came at a point when I recognized the opportunity to grow alongside my daughter.

Matthew Phelps’s weblog can be found at: http://matthewphelps.wordpress.com/

by Ryan Bronaugh

Veteran Writer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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