Marine Captain Matthew Phelps, currently stationed in Okinawa, said it was “pure patriotism” spurred by the September 11 terrorist attacks that inspired him to enlist in 2002.
“I was so affected by the events on that day that I couldn’t do anything else in life before I served,” he said. “Everything else, including my personal freedom, was secondary to that purpose.”
What he didn’t realize was that his drive to serve would come with a sacrifice he didn’t completely comprehend at the time.
Signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was in full force and Phelps figured it meant exactly what it said.
“I was aware of DADT (don’t ask, don’t tell), but assumed that the policy worked the way it was supposed to—that no one would ask me and I wouldn’t be required to tell anyone,” he said. “This worked for me, since I really just wanted to serve my country and didn’t think my personal life would play into it. I guess, since I hadn’t ever really known anyone in the military, I was naïve. It never occurred to me that the military wasn’t conducive to maintaining a private personal life.”
Life in the Marine Corps was rough for Phelps and other gay troops until the repeal of DADT, though. Very few days passed without gay slurs or homophobic remarks, though he said they were never directed at him. He did what he needed to do to avoid questions and didn’t talk about what he did in his free time or on liberty.
He did make friends he was comfortable enough with to open to—some were fellow Marines he’d known for a couple years and had come to trust. Still, living a normal life wasn’t always easy.
“I avoided nearly every social occasion and ended up spending time with civilian friends,” Phelps said. “It’s really hard to hide a personal life. You never know when you might run into someone you know, and there is no hiding the panic that overcomes you when you realize someone you work with is seeing you with a friend or a date.
“I was always careful, though, to never do anything in public that might be used against me. A personal dispute with someone who knew you were gay could end your career.”
It would have been impossible to be “out” in the Marine Corps then, he said. Debates were becoming more common, but the only opinions that could be openly expressed were those that were anti-gay.
“Saying anything pro-equality would immediately invite suspicion,” Phelps said.
Eight years after Phelps enlisted as a musician, subsequently becoming a logistics officer, he met his future husband at the 18th Annual Servicemembers Legal Defense Network dinner in Washington.
Phelps was living in San Diego at the time and Benjamin Schock called Seattle home. The pair was introduced by a friend of Schock’s who didn’t know Phelps, but was happy to play Cupid.
That was May 20, 2010. Almost exactly seven months later, on December 18, the Senate voted to repeal DADT—the House had approved the bill three days earlier—and the bill went to the president for his signature.
“When DADT finally went into effect in 2011, a weight was lifted off my shoulders,” Phelps said. “The decision to be ‘out’ at work was an easy one—life under DADT had nearly driven me to give up the career I had devoted myself to because I had hidden my true self.
“I spent a long time worrying about what people thought of me and it trained my thinking. It isn’t easy to undo that, but I am constantly surprised,” he said. “The reaction from people I knew back then has been relief. Those who knew, or suspected, I was gay are relieved I don’t have to hide anymore and they see a happier, more genuine me.”
He’s equally surprised when he learns fellow Marines tell him they were opposed to DADT, but couldn’t say anything without facing criticism and scrutiny.
“In just a few years, I went from paranoid [and] hiding in a closet to bringing my husband to unit family events,” Phelps said. “I think that’s a pretty big change.”
In fact, he said the Marine Corps, and by extension, the military has accepted gay service members.
“My experience has been that the Marine Corps wants to take care of Marines and their families, and it has taken care of mine,” he said. “Ultimately, I think the military values ability, performance and potential—none of which have anything to do with gender or sexuality.”
As for Schock, the repeal of DADT allowed he and Phelps to conduct their relationship in the open, but the military still offers some challenges, though they’re the same challenges all military couples face.
“One of the significant challenges I anticipated being married to someone in the military was living far from family and friends,” he said. “Both Matthew and I are close to our parents and siblings, and being so far away for so long is an adjustment.
“We’re lucky we can video chat and send photos to keep everyone updated on our adventures here. And, while we don’t get a chance to see our families as frequently as we’re used to, it gives us a once in a lifetime opportunity to live somewhere we normally never would and for them to visit!”
Additionally, Schock, who volunteers as a certified nurse’s aide at the U.S. Navy Hospital on Okinawa, is often on his own, though for only a couple weeks at a time, when Phelps travels for unit exercises or conferences. The bonus—occasionally Schock gets to go as well.
Schock will continue to experience the military lifestyle, at least for the time being, as Phelps has no intention of leaving the Corps. What started as a four-year hitch grounded in patriotism has become a career.
“I immediately connected with the Marines’ core values of honor, courage and commitment,” he said. “Despite the challenges DADT imposed on me, my connection with the values and ideals grew stronger. I realized there was no reason to leave the Marines as long as I continued to feel that original purpose.
“I love my job as a logistics officer and the Marine Corps has provided a great life for Ben and me. I love being a Marine and intend to keep doing it until that feeling goes away,” he said. “After 12 years, it’s only grown stronger.”
Samantha L. Quigley is the editor in chief of ON★PATROL.