Friday
January 19, 2007
SGN.org
Volume 35
Issue 03
 
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Monday, Nov 18, 2019

 

 



 
Tour De Life by Beau Burriola
Volunteering with soldiers
by Beau Burriola - SGN Contributing Wtiter

A few months ago, I began volunteering to work with soldiers. I signed up on a whim in August, realizing that since I was just a few months away from my twenty-eighth birthday, it was about to be ten years since I walked into a recruiting office in San Antonio with everything I owned in the world in a tiny gym bag.

Memories of the Army are the clearest memories in my mind, maybe because memories built with such intensity - of pain, of personal accomplishment, of physical exhaustion, of personal achievement - are so vivid that they can't be forgotten in ten lifetimes. They are, however, vivid enough to want to stay connected to and volunteering to work with soldiers seemed like a harmless way to do that.

Also, frankly, my life as an out Gay man feels a little too Gay-focused sometimes. My Queer life, where I go to watch a Gay chorus or enjoy Gay happy hour at a Gay restaurant bar, can all start to feel like a perfectly inverted pink picture of the life I remember so clearly before; enough for me to miss some things I used to do that weren't always "Gay". The smell of a firing range mixed with crisp, early-morning air, the smell of floor wax on a barracks floor at three in the morning, or the comforting and assuring (almost spiritual) sound of singing a running cadence with three hundred men before the sun rises; these are memories I appreciate for their sheer beauty. Had I not had to reckon a conflict between being Gay and being a soldier, I'm sure I would be in Iraq right now.

"Are you going to tell them you are Gay?" Jamie asked me when I told her I thought I'd give it a try.

"Yes. I thought I'd do just that. I'm going to show up and announce that the Gay Volunteer has arrived. Maybe I'll sing the Wonder Woman theme song, too." Of course I wouldn't. I hadn't decided just how far I was going to go to hide my sexuality, but I didn't expect it to come up. Anyway, I figured it would be a great exercise to keep the world in perspective. It seems to me that it isn't enough to just talk about diversity, sometimes you've got to go out and be the one who is "diverse" to make much of a difference. I decided that if I were presented any questions about my personal life, I'd be as open to whoever asked as I was comfortable being.

I signed up to volunteer and waited six weeks before I got a call. By the time my first shift started on a cool Friday afternoon, I still hadn't decided how closeted I was prepared to be.

"You live here?" a soldier asked loudly and almost angrily, walking up to the desk with more of a stomp than a step. He looked me right in the eyes as he spoke, catching me off guard and sending me half standing out of my chair. He seemed at ease with the barking forcefulness of casual military communication, but I was not that comfortable.

"Over in Seattle, yes, Sa." I answered, almost adding "Sergeant" without missing a beat, a reflex reverberating effortlessly through time. From the tone of his voice, I expected him to point out how unpolished my shoes were, ask me why I didn't shave, or demand to know why I left the Army. I immediately assumed a position of conflict before he finished asking if I knew a good place in town to stay near the stadium that might have a bar nearby. When I learned to relax, it didn't take long for me to readjust to being around soldiers. I listened more than spoke, carefully chose my words, and focused on my reasons for being there.

On my second day volunteering, I sat comfortably for a while talking to a soldier who had just finished his second trip to Iraq. His bag was worn down by white dirt. He was near my age, but the lines of time on my eyes from smiling were different than his, which seemed more to be from squinting and carrying the weight of a serious brow. I listened to his stories of Baghdad and Kirkut and wondered about all the people I served with - of Specialist Byrd, of Sergeant Countryman or Brown or Boreski. I though of how young we all were to be carrying such big weapons. I thought about how different it must be to serve now, knowing you could be one of the thousands to die.

Now a few weeks into it, I feel like this volunteer gig is going to work out. I no longer feel like I have to be openly Gay or anti-war, or know for certain I'm fully accepted to feel comfortable. I enjoy the challenge of communicating with people I am so different from and I'm learning to serve in my own way. I'm even applying the barking rule in a moderate effort to be more assertive in my own life. Like thousands of other Gay people who have had to choose between being true to self and being a soldier, I still have a connection to that life and those people that creates a sense of duty to continue and support them.

Now, since I can no longer be a soldier, I'll settle for being a friendly face.

Beau Burriola is a local dabbler, mixing up cherries and chocolate chip cookie dough into waffle batter to try to find the right balance. beaubrent@gmail.com
visit Beau at www.beaubrent.com

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