Antonio Agnone was raised to believe that every American has a duty to serve his country in some capacity. Following in the footsteps of his grandfather, a soldier in WW II, Antonio was commissioned as a Marine officer upon finishing his undergrad work at Ohio State. He would lead his own unit in Iraq where, as a combat engineer, it was his job to keep his men safe from Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), those deadly implements responsible for more than 80% of the combat deaths in that war. Many is the time, he recalled Thursday night, when he crouched over the ground, warning his men to stay back as he painstakingly disarmed a booby trap. In a sane world, there would be little to detract from such acts of bravery. But in the real world, his many acts of heroism will, in the minds of some, forever be tainted by one simple fact: Antonio Agnone is gay.
On Thursday night, Cooley Law School hosted Agnone and Alex Nicholson as they stopped in the Lansing area on the Legacy of Service Tour, sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). These two former American soldiers are traveling around the country telling their stories as part of a campaign to end the Pentagon’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) policy that requires gays and lesbians to hide their identity in order to serve their country. Until 1993, gays were forbidden to serve under any circumstances; the 1993 law was intended to be a compromise between those who wanted to keep the status quo and those who wanted to allow gays to serve openly.
That compromise, as originally conceived, was to work this way: recruiters would no longer ask recruits if they were gay, the miliary would stop actively trying to determine who was and wasn’t gay, and as long as a soldier did not reveal to others that they were gay they would be allowed to serve. But as Nicholson’s example shows, that isn’t how the policy works in practice. Nicholson, trained by the military in human intelligence collecting and fluent in 5 languages, including Arabic, did not tell anyone he was gay, nor was he ever asked; he was outed by a fellow linguist who just happened to see a private letter on his desk that he had written to a friend in Portuguese.
The young lady who saw that letter reported him to their commanding officer, who called Nicholson in and offered him a simple deal: don’t fight the accusation, go quietly and without incident and you will receive an honorable discharge; fight me on it and I’ll investigate you, call in all your friends and your family and question them, make sure everyone knows about it and then give you a less than honorable discharge. Nicholson, only 20 years old at the time, took the path of least resistence and quietly went away. Unlike Agnone, who walked into the HRC’s office and volunteered to do his part to fight the DADT policy, Nicholson was reluctant to speak out.
Nicholson had joined the Army a few months prior to 9/11 and was discharged 6 months after the horrible events of that day. It was not until after the various 9/11 commissions did their work that he decided to get involved in the fight for equality in the military. As he explained Thursday night, the post-9/11 investigations revealed that there were at least two messages intercepted the day before the hijackings that would have alerted us to what was going on. But those messages were in Arabic, and because of a shortage of Arabic translators, those messages were not translated until 9/13, two days after the towers came down.
It was that revelation that prompted Nicholson to take a stand, not so much because DADT hurts gays but because it hurts military readiness. Since that time, the situation has only gotten worse. Under DADT, more than 300 specially trained linguists have been discharged solely for being gay; nearly 60 of those were Arabic specialists. This has happened at a time when the Pentagon admits that they have a crucial shortage of Arabic translators not only to translate intelligence data, but to accompany combat units in Iraq and translate as they communicate with the local citizens and militias. The presence and competence of an Arabic translator can, quite literally, keep a combat unit alive.
In contrast to Nicholson, Agnone was never outed. He was one of the man who are not counted in the loss column for DADT because, rather than being outed and discharged, he decided not to reenlist because of the enormous emotional difficulty that DADT imposes on gay soldiers. When he deployed to Iraq, he left a partner behind, someone he cared about deeply. While serving in Iraq, where he risked his life on a daily basis to disarm explosives and keep his men alive, he was disturbed by the reality that if he was injured or killed in duty, the military would not even notify his partner. Likewise, if his partner was to be in a car accident or become critically ill, they would not grant him leave to attend to him. These are things that straight soldiers take for granted but gay soldiers never can.
Torn between his duty to the person he loved and his duty to the men he led and cared for, Agnone ultimately decided not to reenlist. It’s a decision that still bothers him. It is apparent that he still feels some guilt for leaving his men; he still feels like he should be there protecting them from IEDs. Listening to Agnone and Nicholson speak, one cannot help but be struck by the very real sense of duty and honor that they each feel. They both wish they were still on the front lines. They each take solace from the strong belief that by fighting against what they believe to be an unjust and impractical policy, they are, in a very real sense, still serving their country.