Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Navy Chaplain Defends His Gay Son

It may seem a bit ironic that I'm posting this, but I've confirmed many aspects of this story from other sources online. One thing Shilts has done well in his book Conduct Unbecoming, at least what I've read thus far, is relating the turbulent times of 1960s of 70s. Most people may know that these were times of great social change in the United States, some good and some bad depending upon one's perspective. One compelling story I've come across is that of Ensign Vernon E. Berg III at his discharge hearing in 1976. He was the first Naval officer who admitted to being gay and challenged being discharged because of it. His father was a career Navy chaplain, who for many reasons didn't believe his son was really gay. Ensign Berg had dated women in high school and while in the Academy, for example, which made it difficult for his father to accept that he was gay. Yet, when he reviewed the investigative reports at his son's discharge hearing he not only came to accept the fact his son was gay, but was ashamed at how poorly the Navy had treated him. Some proponents of DADT will undoubtedly dismiss this all as personal bias since this was his son on trial, but even so I find his testimony to be powerful and quite compelling - especially his telling of his experiences in Vietnam:

The climax of the eight-day hearing occurred the next morning when a sandy-haired Navy commander took the stand. His dress blue uniform only highlighted the striking resemblance the man bore to the defendant. On his chest, among all the other ribbons Commander Vernon Berg, Jr., had accumulated during the course of his career, was the Bronze Star he had won when he almost died ministering to marines during the Tet offensive… [Ensign] Berg’s Navy lawyer, Lieutenant John Montgomery, asked the chaplain about his experience with gay sailors.

“A person is a person,” Berg began. “I really have felt strained in this whole hearing about people saying homosexuals have different problems. They have the same problems as anyone else. A homosexual can perform badly or spectacularly well. Homosexuals that I have known in the military have done extremely well, getting to extremely high ranks after I first met them.”

“Are you saying that you know of homosexuals who are officers in the United States Navy today?” Montgomery asked.
“Certainly,” the chaplain answered.
“Do you know any of them of the rank of commander?”
“The rank of captain?” Montgomery asked.
“The rank of rear admiral?”
“Yes, sir,” Berg said. The room fell utterly silent while the chaplain continued. “Therefore, I would like to interject what I think it behooves all of us to look at what we do. We condemn blithely with prejudice and, you know, we must be careful whom we condemn.

When Montgomery asked about Berg’s experience as a chaplain to Marine units in Vietnam, the commander said that at least once a week one or another Marine would come to him and admit to being gay. He also acknowledged, somewhat painfully, what he would have done not too long before if a commander had sent him a gay soldier.

“This week has been a learning experience for me,” the elder Berg said, “and I’m sure it has been for all of us. I’m a product of Navy society also, and, sadly to say, years ago in 1960, ’61, ’62, I would have told him carte blanche, ‘If you are homosexual, you had better get out.’” [...]

“Getting back to the Marines,” [a board member] said to the commander. “You say you served with the Marines in Vietnam and it came to light that certain Marines were homosexuals and their buddies knew about them. From my experience, they were not accepted. They were sort of outcasts.”

“In the Marines, we’re talking about a Marine unit,” Berg answered. When one of those guys in that small unit finds their buddy is a homosexual, and if anybody else tells on him, watch out. They will protect him.”

“Why?” asked [the board member].

“Knowing Marines as I do,” Berg said, “why would a given unit of Marines, once they know a man, live with him, fight with him, watch friends die with him, what do they care about what he does in his bedroom? It becomes unimportant, like color, or like male or female. Gosh, who cares? Sometimes, even in combat, I have had all sorts of men come to me and say, ‘Gee, why can’t the real world be like this? Why can’t we all sit down and have communion together and drink wine together? Why can’t we all love each other as human beings and accept each other as we are?'"

Another board member interrupted Berg. “I’m having difficulty in trying to interpret homosexual behavior and tendencies,” he said. “What is normal homosexual behavior that makes it identifiable?”

“When I hold a dying Marine in my arms and cry because he is dying, and I stroke his face and kiss him on the head, am I a homosexual? Tears appeared in his eyes. He paused briefly while he brought his hands up to cover his face.

“Pardon me,” he said. “When I talk about Marines I get out of control, because I love them. Does that make me a homosexual?“ He looked at the board. “What is a homosexual?” he asked. “Where does emotion and love stop and perversity take up?”

Ensign Berg unfortunately lost his battle to remain in the Navy and was given an other than honorable discharge. These kind of discharges were regularly given to homosexual servicemembers at that time, which didn't change until a few years later. However, Berg challenged his discharge in court and while he didn't win reinstatement he was successful in having his discharge upgraded to honorable.

UPDATE: Welcome Washington Blade readers! If you haven't read Randy Shilts' book Conduct Unbecoming yet, I highly recommend it. Be aware though, that it isn't without some flaws.