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Bringing openness to Iraq: after coming out to the members of his Army combat unit, one soldier experienced an increase in trust and unit cohesion.

RyanSmith served for several months in Iraq as a low-level enlisted soldier, encountering numerous combat situations. While there, he came out to the members of his unit When he returned from his Middle East deployment Smith (not his real name) got in touch with the Center for the Study of Sexual, Minorities in the Military al the University of California Santa Barbara, to share his story.

Smith's decision, to be honest with his fellow soldiers came at a time when the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which prohibits gay men and lesbians from serving openly, is being increasingly debated. The military claims that allowing openly gay soldiers would hurl unit cohesion, but Smith found just the opposite to be true, His honesty, he said created a stronger bond with his peers while the "don't ask, don't tell" policy actually hindered unit cohesion by requiring him and other gay soldiers to keep secrets. With such a policy imposed on them, he said, gay soldiers in Iraq often felt resentment and less commitment.

Smith spoke with The Advocate shortly after contacting UCSB.

--John Caldwell

What was it like being out to your fellow soldiers?

It wasn't as if I was treated any differently. Everyone knew I am gay. When you're in a situation where you have to fight for one another, being out is really incidental.

Why did you decide to come out?

I reached a point where I needed to tell them. It's really so much easier this way. I don't have to worry about people finding out, And I trust the people around me.

Did you experience any homophobia in your unit?

There's a big stigma attached to being gay because of the ["don't ask, don't tell"] policy. People go into the military with the mind-set that gay people are unfit to serve. There have been people who have felt uncomfortable around me, but as they got to know me it became a complete nonissue. The more important thing is the kind of person you are and how well you serve.

What about the environment in Iraq? Was it dangerous for gay soldiers to be out?

Not at all. In fact, it became an even bigger nonissue. We had much more important things to worry about than one soldier who happens to be gay.

Did you serve alongside any openly gay soldiers from countries such as Great Britain and Australia, which have pro-gay military policies?

I didn't encounter any openly gay soldiers from other countries. But the units from those countries were some of the most high-speed and efficient I've encountered. I wish I could have been in a unit like that, They were something else.

What kind of burden does the "don't ask, don't tell" policy place on you?

Even though my unit does know, I have to hide things. Some people could ruin my career. When you have an organization like ours, the most important part is trusting each other. If you feel like a person has something to hide, then you don't trust that person. And a combat arena is not a place where you want to feel distrust.

Do you think the policy will change any time soon?

The groundwork has been laid. From my perspective, them aren't many civilians who support the policy or very many people in the military, who support it.

Will you continue your military career if you have to stay in the closet?

No. I would consider it if the policy were gone. But once my enlistment is up, I have decided I will move on. There's a point where I am going to want to have a life of my own. Under the policy it would be difficult to live with a partner or date someone long-term.
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Title Annotation:Behind the Headlines
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 25, 2003
Words:628
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