An Army artilleryman who served two tours of duty in Iraq, 32-year-old Jeff Howe, was recently outed by an online profile and subsequently discharged under 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.'
Howe, an Elk Grove Village native, was discharged Aug. 3 by the Army for posting a profile on Connexion.org, an online LGBT community site.
The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network ( SLDN ) reports that online outing cases make up 25 percent of the organization's total outings so far in 2005. The organization, which first reported about online outings in May 2004, partnered with LGBT sites such as Gay.com/PlanetOut.com and Connexion.org to release precautions for military members using online sites. On Aug. 4, SLDN reported 10 additional online outing cases, including Howe's.
'In the situation I was in, it just didn't seem possible that I could get kicked out for it,' Howe told Windy City Times. He added that he was '100 percent' in the closet while enlisted: 'I never told anybody.'
Howe's background differs from the traditional enlistee. He was working as a corporate marketing manager for a Fortune 500 company in San Francisco when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred. 'I started to do a little bit of soul searching … and then in the summer of 2002, I joined the Army to help out the country,' he said. 'I felt like I needed to do something.'
Even though he has been out to everybody since he was 22, Howe knew he would have to go back into the closet to join the Army. 'For somebody to say, 'OK, well, I'm going to have to go ahead and keep this part of my life secret from my co-workers,' intellectually, it doesn't seem like that big of a deal,' he said. 'But when you're on deployment, that's all you have 24 hours, seven days a week. You're surrounded by people that you can't be honest with. It gets to be a bit much.'
It was a challenge, he said, to keep it from his unit—people that he had grown close to, including his boss. With many members of his unit aged 18-24, he felt it was best to keep it a secret for safety reasons.
SLDN recommends that servicemembers should not access LGBT sites using military computers, post photos in online profiles, or use terminology or information that could reveal their status as a military member. Accessing LGBT sites online is not safe through a military computer or during duty hours on a personal computer, although many servicemembers assume that it is. Military members should use a pseudonym or screen name that does not reveal their branch or identity; avoid disclosing the name of their base; use a personal e-mail address to register and receive mail; erase their cookies and history on computers used by others; and never state that they are LGBT in a profile. In addition, military members should not be out to anybody, under any circumstances, while in the military.
According to Howe, he was never told that keeping a personal ad or a profile stating he is gay was a violation of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' 'I thought it was as long as you didn't make a statement to somebody in the military, like one of your superiors, that you're pretty much good,' he added. 'And if they did find something like that, they would at least ask you about it.'
Howe has been to Iraq on two tours. The first one was from April 2003 to May 2004. He went back in January of this year until finding out he was discharged, ironically, on July 4. During his interim between May 2004 and Jan. 2005, Howe set up a blog at the 'blessing and encouragement' of his superiors. The blog's purpose was to keep people at home updated on what the unit was doing in a very pro-Army manner.
Toward the end of June, the base Howe was living on received regular incoming rocket attacks. On one of the attacks, a rocket hit a coalition vehicle. Howe took pictures of the destroyed vehicle because both he and his boss thought it would be interesting to post them on the blog. Somebody from another unit was upset by the pictures and brought it to the attention of an individual higher up in the Army. That person directed that a background investigation be launched into Howe to make sure that he was not trying to aid the enemy or working for Al-Qaeda.
'They misinterpreted the intent of what I was doing,' Howe said.
On July 1, Howe's boss instructed him to take down the blog, and informed Howe that a background investigation would take place.
'I deleted the blog immediately,' Howe said. 'And my boss kept getting interviewed about it over and over again, but they wouldn't talk to me.'
Early in the morning on July 4, Howe said, his boss said he wanted to speak to him. 'I was freaking out, you know? I had no idea what it could be.' Howe's boss stated that Howe would be separated from the Army for violating 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.'
'It was a total shock to me,' Howe said. The violation was a profile on a Connexion.org, where Howe had filled out his sexual orientation as 'gay.' 'That was enough for them to initiate the separation,' he added.
After the meeting, Howe said he initially felt shock and dismay. Although the Army offered him a chance to rebut because they did not have proof that he had or would engage in homosexual activity, he turned it down. 'I wasn't going to sit there and lie,' he said.
While preparing to leave, Howe said he was afraid he might be in danger, but his chain of command kept the situation confidential. He also had to deal with the reaction of his boss, who he had grown close to.
'The first 24 hours, he was cool,' Howe said. 'We spent some time apart, and when we got back together a couple of days later, he had gone to the dark side.'
So far, Howe has not had any contact with his unit. 'That's the hardest part of the whole thing,' he said. 'It's like you become a family with these people. It's all you have over there. You're getting shot at every day, and you know, for better or for worse, good or bad, they're your family. And then to just be ripped out of there extremely quickly. From the time I had until the time I left was less than two weeks. And during that time, I couldn't talk to anybody about what was going on. So, I feel like I have a lot of unresolved stuff.'
Howe will miss interacting with the children and young adults he had grown close to during his checkpoints and patrols. 'And then not being able to say goodbye to them, not being able to … sort of continue to mentor them to become productive, democracy-loving people—that's the hardest part.'
Howe is also angered by the irony of the situation. He joined in November 2002 and enrolled for a two-year enlistment. In late August 2004, as he was preparing to leave, his stay was involuntarily extended until April 2006. He was told that the war would not be successful without him. 'So, that's another central irony of this case. In that one day, they force me to stay in the Army and tell me I have to go back to Iraq, and that it's central that they have all the bodies that they need … and I'm a central member of the unit,' he said. 'One day, as soon as they find out that I'm gay, they say, 'Get your stuff and get out of Iraq. There's no place for you in this Army.'' Howe was near the top of his unit, and had received many awards.
During his stay in Iraq, Howe said he did not think about the future much. Instead, he focused on staying alive. But now out of the Army, with no job or place to live, he is looking ahead. As he lives with his parents in the suburbs, he is making plans to attend law school. 'I want to be a lawyer, so I can hopefully one day help people that were in my situation.'
Despite what has happened, Howe said he has no regrets. 'Corporate marketing was pretty much my life,' he said. 'I was really sort of obsessed with work. In that sense, going to Iraq twice has really been a wake-up call for me. I don't regret joining the Army or anything that's happened.'
While he pieces his life back together, Howe hopes to spread the word to lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals in the military to be careful. 'It's incumbent upon them to learn about the policies of what you can and can't do,' he said. 'And don't just take it for granted that they think they know.' He encourages LGBT people to join the military, but warns them to do their research. However, people need to be careful about what they read while enlisted, which makes it difficult to reach those currently serving.
Howe will speak at a Chicago SLDN event Sept. 23 ( call 773-752-0058 ) . The more he speaks out, he said, the better the chances are that he can reach LGBT individuals over in Iraq about 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policies.
He also hopes to convince more people to support those serving. Howe is thankful for the support he's gotten—particularly from the gay community—since his return. 'It's been nice to sort of get that support that I wasn't able to get while I was still in the Army. No matter what, everybody that's over there—gay, lesbian, bisexual, white, Black—deserves respect and the thanks of everybody in America for going over there, whether or not you agree with the war or the administration,' he added. 'Every person over there is a hero.'