In honor of veterans day we are spotlighting Iraq War veteran Rob Smith. In his book Closets, Combat and Coming Out, Smith details his life as a black gay soldier during the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Era.
Since the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” it seems hard to imagine the thousands who served under the policy. Smith was a closeted gay male, living under that policy and he’s documented his experience in his powerful memoir.
Now in his 30’s, Smith chronicles his life before, during and after the military starting with his entry at age seventeen. Like many before him, Smith used the military as a bridge to a better future. Unlike most memoirs of Black gay men, the candid details of a crush on his military recruiter, being rejected by his mother, and even thoughts of suicide are all understandable and well told.
“I grew up poor and black in Ohio, not lots of options. No one in my family went to college and the military was a means of getting ahead.”
Before enlisting in the military, Smith thought he was “different” which he would later connect to his sexual orientation, being gay.
“It was very isolating being gay in the military, it puts you on the defense and creates a barrier. You had to walk a tight rope or get kicked out.”
Smith was just a 17-year-old boy, scraping by as the only black soldier at his boot camp, and getting picked on for it. "It was harsh mentally and physically. The racism I experienced was crazy," Smith says. "It was a tough area to revisit for me, as I was writing about it."
In one of the first inklings he was gay, he was in fact attracted to a gorgeous recruiter who sold Smith dreams of camping and hanging out outdoors with new buddies.
He ended up being too pudgy to run a solid two miles, too young to stick up for himself, perhaps not "masculine" enough for his peers, and the only black kid at boot camp, all of which made him the target of plenty of ridicule.
Smith admits that writing and reading the first third of his book still makes him cringe. Yet, he powered through training, leading him to toughen up in the Army's infantry, one of the military's most demanding jobs. He initially wasn't in physically great shape, but he was smart, and it turned out Smith could shoot.
"In writing this," Smith says, "I wanted to explore what it means to be a gay man in general, and especially, what does it mean to be gay in this hyper-masculine, homophobic institution that is the United States military, in the infantry, which is the most male, and the the hardest job in the military."
Smith began to figure out his own identity while in the Army in the very beginning of his official career. Right before he flew off to his first assignment, Smith picked up a Rolling Stone profile on an Army private who was murdered because he fell in love with a transgender woman. It was Pvt. First Class Barry Winchell.
"I read that literally right before I flew out to my first duty station, and it scared the hell out of me," he says. "That's when I became aware of DADT. They talked a lot about the ban, and that you would get kicked out and lose everything."
Not only would Smith be kicked out, but so much was at stake: he would lose his chances at the G.I. Bill, the very reason he had joined in the first place, other than the escape from his small town. Had Smith been kicked out of the military under "don't ask, don't tell," he would have been just another statistic. People of color were disproportionately discharged from the military under "don't ask, don't tell." For example, in 2008, people of color made up 29 percent of the entire military population, but accounted for 45 percent of DADT-related discharges. Perhaps that's because "don't ask, don't tell" was randomly enforced. If you had a commanding officer who was OK ignoring the fact that you had a partner, or that you were attracted to people of the same sex, then you were clear. But if you didn't, you had to be extremely cautious.
Smith told The Advocate of an instance when he was off base at a club in Colorado Springs, that had a gay night, where he often held court. He had to be careful, because after a certain hour, gay night ended and anyone could funnel in, including his colleagues and commanders. One night he lost track of time and realized, as he was making out with a guy on the dance floor, that one of his squad leaders was there. Actually, they bumped right into each other. He left the bar, and for the next 48 hours, engaged in a massive freakout.
"I went back to work on Monday, and that soldier never said anything to anybody," Smith said. "That was a really scary moment. I could have lost everything."
Eventually, Smith shipped off to Iraq at 20 years old. He says he thought about death in ways that no one that age should be forced to think about every day. "It was just a constant tight-rope walk," he says. "I was constantly on edge. I was a ground soldier in the infantry, and we would just get instantly called to go on missions. They would just come out of nowhere, and it was a very scary time…The gay thing really took a back seat to staying alive, and keeping my job, and making sure I was protecting the people to my right and to my left."
Meanwhile at home as the war escalated, the face of LGBT service members started to become more important in the fight to repeal the ban instituted the decade prior. However, aside from a handful of activists, the face of "don't ask, don't tell" repeal rarely resembled Smith's.
"A lot of the stories that we see from gay veterans often are from captains, or lieutenants, and their lives are just so much different from the lives of the people in enlisted military," he says. Part of the reason he wanted to write his book was because "this image that we have of an American soldier in our mind is always this grizzled white dude. We always see that image, and I was really shocked that there were no black veterans who came forward to tell their stories about Iraq in this way. Our stories are valid as well."
On the front lines, it seemed that those differences between us that are all too striking here at home were of little importance to the Iraqi people.
"Sometimes in America, as a black person, you don't have the experience of simply being American," Smith says. "You're African-American. There's always something after it, or before it. But overseas, you're representing America, and wearing this American uniform, with an American flag on my right shoulder. Overseas, I am seen as an American before I'm seen as anything before us."
I can't pretend I'll ever know what it's like to be in combat, but I have had the privilege of being outside of the United States as a traveler. I will say, being a black and Latina woman who falls anywhere in the LGBT spectrum — with all of those groups having faced lengthy histories of discrimination and are even still met by challenges — it definitely feels weird to simply tell people that "I am an American."
Some of my ancestors came here unwillingly, and some came here looking for opportunities. My grandmothers didn't have time to be feminist activists; they were already working hard-fought jobs to put food on the table. Yet somehow being an American is part of our identities.
Smith served five years in the U.S. Army as an infantryman, earning the Army Commendation Medal and Combat Infantry Badge.
Post military life, Smith graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in Communication and dove head first into activism. Determined to create a better experience for those military personnel sanctioned under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Smith was arrest at White House gates with other LGBT activist, protesting.
In 2010 he was arrested at the White House with 12 other LGBT activists in protest of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law which barred lesbian, gay, and bisexual soldiers from serving openly, and he was later a guest of President Barack Obama at the ceremony that repealed the law.
Fast forward to today and Rob Smith is an Iraq war veteran, author, public speaker, LGBT activist, and self-proclaimed loudmouth living in New York City. He also a YouTube video pundit on many topics and current events