The first person I ever knew about whom the word “he’s ruined” was used was a staff sergeant in my company in the Marines not long after the end of the Korean War. He may still be alive and he may still be hurting from what happened to him, so I’ll just refer to him here by the randomly chosen letter R.
I knew nothing about Staff Sergeant R other than that he was a nice enough NCO, one who never used his rank to give those of us with fewer stripes a hard time. He was easy-going, specific, and private.
It was easy for the NCOs in our outfit in those years to be private because they all had rooms of their own, with shelves and places to hang things. The other members of the platoon were bedded in double-decker bunks in a huge room?called the “squad-bay”?with locker boxes that contained everything we were allowed to own except for our rifles, which were, when we weren’t out doing things with them, all in standing in racks in the middle of the squad bay.
I have no photographs of S/Sgt. R?I have only a few photographs from those years?but I remember what he looked like, perhaps because he was the only Marine I knew who had a moustache. Privates and PFCs in the Marines?at least in our outfit?in those years were not allowed to have moustaches, but NCOs were. It was one of the privileges of rank, along with those private rooms and a club that served real beer and booze rather than the watered-down 3.2 beer the rest of us got at the PX.
One Saturday afternoon in summer, I was playing touch football with some of the other guys on the grass between our barracks and the parking lot when S/Sgt. R came out the squad-bay fire door carrying an armful of clothes. He was wearing civvies, not uncommon on a weekend, particularly for someone going off on a day or two of liberty or for a longer period on leave. He didn’t wave or even look at us, which was odd for him. He put the clothes on the back seat of his car, then went back into the squad bay, looking straight ahead as he went. A few minutes later he came out with some large paper bags, which he also put in the back seat of his car. He went inside again and this time came out with his seabag, which he put in the trunk. He got in the car and drove off. He never looked at us once the entire time, never waved, never said hello or “See ya,” the way people do.
“That’s it for him,” somebody said.
“What is?” I said.
“That,” the guy said. “He’s out. Finito. Kaput. Gone.”
“He’s transferred?” I said. What S/Sgt. R had done?put all his gear into his car and driven off?was the sort of thing someone being transferred to another base does. But the not-waving wasn’t typical. Guys always waved and said, “See ya,” when they went elsewhere.
“Didn’t you hear?” the guy said. “He got passed over for promotion. For the second time. So he’s out. No more Marine Corps for Sergeant R. He’s ruined.”
I asked what happened, what he’d done.
The guy looked at me as if I were an idiot, as if I were completely out of the loop, which I in fact was.
“They say he’s queer.”
“Sergeant R? I’ve never seen him act queer.”
“Is it true?” I asked.
“Who knows?” the guy said. “It’s what they say.”
“But I’ve never seen him do anything like that.”
“Maybe he doesn’t do it around here. You can’t be queer and be in the Marines. How would that be? Would you want to go into combat with a guy like that? A queer!”
S/Sgt. R had been in combat, but none of the rest of us had. Somebody had gone into combat with him and there had never been any issue then, else he wouldn’t be a staff sergeant getting passed over on his way to tech sergeant now. S/Sgt. R had the two blue and white striped Korean service ribbons and a Bronze Star and some other ribbons signifying things I didn’t know, but I knew those. We all knew those.
“You can’t kick a guy out of the Corps just because of a rumor,” I said. “There’s got to be more to it than that.”
“You think people like him let you see them doing it?” the guy said. “He’s ruined,” he said again, “ruined.”
I’ve frequently thought about S/Sgt. R over the years. I was a transient in the Marine Corps, marking time there while I figured out what to do with myself after lousy time in high school, but S/Sgt. R was a career man, a lifer. He had, so far as I knew, no family. There were no wife and kids in an apartment off the base or back home waiting for the hitch to end. I’d been in his room in the barracks a few times and it was like the rooms of a lot of those lifers: Spartan, devoid of pictures. What was in his room was mostly Marine Corps stuff. Those guys cleaned their weapons, worked out, went to the NCO club on weekends, waited for action and cursed it when it came. That was their present and their future. That was their lives. Their home was the Corps.
When I thought of him I thought how awful it was that your life could turn out to be not at all what you thought it was or what it was going to be merely because someone you perhaps didn’t know decided to start a rumor that perhaps wasn’t the least bit true, a rumor accusing you of a crime for which there was no defense, because the crime wasn’t an act anyway, but only a state of being.
Someone I told the story of S/Sgt. R to asked if it weren’t possible that he had gotten caught doing something but that they’d kept it quiet, the way they sometimes do in corporations and universities. Anything’s possible, but in this case I think it is unlikely. This happened after a war, a time when there wasn’t much real work to do. We breathed rumor?“scuttlebutt” we called it?like air. Real stories trumped rumor because they gave you more to work with, and the guys who worked in the company offices trafficked in information constantly. I haven’t a doubt now, nor did I ever, that if there were any thing more than rumor to the passing-over of S/Sgt. R we would have heard the story in ever-expanding detail.
S/Sgt. R was fired by the Marine Corps not because he’d sucked somebody’s cock, but only because someone thought he was the kind of person who might have done that, or who might want to do it at some future date. He’d put his life on the line for real in Korea, but he was fired for a hypothetical.
And I thought of S/Sgt. R when on December 18, 2010, the U.S. Senate passed by a vote of 65 to 31 the repeal of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’ In theory, at any rate, a man or woman can no longer be fired by the U.S. military because someone thinks they might be gay, or might have been gay, or might become gay, and that their gayness, whether real or not, might or might not have anything to do with anything, anywhere, any time.
That relentless hypocrite John McCain fought it to the end, even though he’d promised time and again that if the military command said it was not a problem he’d vote for it. The military command said it wasn’t a problem, whereupon McCain moved the goalposts and said he had other requirements before he’d vote yes. He did that (as John Stewart several times pointed out on “The Daily Show) at least five times, and at the end, he voted his hypocritical lie anyway. John McCain is a man who worries a lot about manliness, a quality which, for all his blustering, he never understood. He was accompanied in his mean-spirited losing vote by the man who is arguably the most stupid member of the U.S. Senate, James M. Inhofe, who said he saw no problem out there that needed fixing by a law like this.
I don’t know if S/Sgt. R was gay. By the time I knew that was an issue, he had been passed over for promotion and was gone, and I never saw him again. If he was gay, I don’t know if he would have told. I surely wouldn’t have asked. And now, after so many years and so many needlessly ruined lives, nobody in the U.S. military has to do either.
BRUCE JACKSON’s most recent books ares The Story is True: the Art and Meaning of Telling Stories (Temple University Press) and Cummins Wide: Photographs from the Arkansas Penitentiary (Center for Documentary Studies and Center Working Papers).