Thursday, June 23, 2011
“DARK CLOUDS RISING: A MARINE’S LIFE DURING THE PERSIAN GULF WAR”: An interview with USMC Veteran (and Leatherman!) Ernest L. Johnson III
USMC veteran Ernest L. Johnson III has just released a new book entitled “Dark Clouds Rising: A Marine’s Life During the Persian Gulf War”. The Persian Gulf War ended in 1991. Since that era, a lot has changed-- both within the world of the military as well as within American and world culture at large. It may be hard to imagine life before the I-Pod, GPS, cellphones, or DVD’s (Remember beepers, foldout maps, and creaky VHS tapes?). But despite the technology over the past two decades, some things have not changed. One of them is the unyielding dedication, strength, and sacrifice of the men and women who serve in our military. Another is the much-appreciated and necessary boost in spirit that our soldiers get when they receive a letter or package from family or friends. While the Internet has become the primary method of communication in our day and age, many servicemen and servicewomen have confirmed that nothing can replace that physical letter or package from a loved one. Johnson reminds us of that in the Preface of his book: “It has been 20 years since the Persian Gulf War. Much has changed in the way we communicate. You will see a common thread of ‘Mail Call‘ throughout my six years. Mail was the one common morale-boosting thing any military member could get. I cannot stress enough the importance of communication with your loved ones who are serving in the Military.”
Johnson’s book is a collection of the soldier’s letters which he sent to his mother during his military service, from his entry into boot camp in 1986 as a teenager, to the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. His mother kept the letters, and the resultant compilation is a story which is alternating fascinating, educational, and revealing. Anyone who remembers reading about The Gulf War in the newspapers or watching coverage on TV (Historically, The Gulf War was the first war in which we were able to see live news on the front lines of the fight.) will soon learn that the images we got to see actually revealed very little about the daily lives of the Americans who served. An example is Johnson’s trying day-to-day assignment in Saudi Arabia. During that period, Johnson almost consistently prefaces his journal entries with “Still here in the Saudi Arabian heat”. Today, the author lives in Indianapolis, Indiana and is very active with the universal Leather community; he owns the title of Mr. 501 Eagle 2010 and is a member of Mama's Family. Johnson spoke with Jed Ryan about his new book and his perspectives on the War 20 years after serving:
JR: Hello, Ernie. Thanks for speaking with me! It was clear that a lot of the letters were written to your mother, but some of them did not specify who they were written to. Was there a specific person who you had the most correspondence with during your service?
EJ: With the exception of a few letters noted, all the “Letter Home” was to my mom. Some of the special cases would be if I had asked her to mail something to a friend of mine who I did not have an address for and she copied them. She copied all my letters home and kept the originals as well.
JR: How challenging was it to see this project go from a bunch of letters to a bound book? What was the hardest part?
EJ: The biggest challenge was deciphering my own handwriting. (Laughs) No, really... the challenge was mostly in the actual doing of the act. Thinking that my voice was insignificant and no one would be interested in my story. Overcoming that was the biggest challenge. I had all these letters but it wasn’t until I read a book on the Pullman Porters that I realized that the individual stories of something greater often have the most significance to the event. Realizing this, I sat down and began the journal.
JR: When I first started reading your memoirs, the most predominant feeling that came through in the beginning was loneliness: even though you are in a crowded barracks with many other guys and there‘s no privacy, you still feel isolated because you’re pulled from your family, friends, and home. What was your coping mechanism for getting through that?
EJ: Boot camp was a big shock. I had a couple of Uncles who were Viet Nam Era Vets and had been through Marine Corps Boot Camp and told me that the physical challenge was by far the easiest and that the mental challenge would be the most difficult to overcome. We started off as 100+ individuals and the Drill Instructor’s job was to form us into an elite unit capable of working together and depending upon each other. We had friendships, but mostly it was survival and learning to rely on each other. Letters home were my coping mechanism, and my journal. I was able to put down my thoughts to process them at a later date so I would not be caught up in them from day to day. It was funny going through some of the entries and reading something that I had completely forgotten about, but other things I remember clearly and there wasn’t so much as a single paragraph about an event. Through the years, after boot camp, our units were always in flux, we had people getting out, the “Short Timers”, and the “Boots” those just getting to a Fleet (permanent) Unit. These are the Brothers we worked with, played with, partied with, etc. We would be there for each other to keep us focused on who we were.
JR: Wow! Now, many military researchers have spoken about the new weapons (bigger, louder, and more destructive) that are used in combat since the Persian Gulf… and subsequently, they have warned us about the effects on our soldiers: specifically, the impact on the brain. Many soldiers are coming home with a form of traumatic brain injury (TBI) that some called “blast injury”… from repeated exposure to deafening noises. More and more soldiers are surviving, but some are left suffering the long-term effects of severe brain damage… which some have called “the invisible wound”. But to add insult to injury, many soldiers have reported that they get less than satisfactory follow-up health care when they leave the military. Do you have any thoughts on that?
EJ: For my time in the Marine Corps, I’ve not heard of this phenomenon, so I can’t speak to this situation.
JR: How long after leaving the Marines did you decide to come out?
EJ: I left the Marine Corps when I was 24 after six years of service with an Honorable Discharge. Though I knew I was gay when I was in the Marine Corps, it was before DADT and I could have easily been discharged for even the slightest homosexual act. When I went in, I went in with the purpose of serving my country as best as I could and to do so honorably. I may have had thoughts about having sex but I did not wish to disgrace the Marine Corps and bring shame to the uniform I chose to wear. It was tough, and in hind sight, I kind of wonder how many other Marines might have been in the same situation. It wasn’t until I was 28 when I finally came out. I had worked in a Copper Mine in Arizona and it was very conservative and I was still in my unsure of the reaction I would receive from my fellow coworkers and friends. It wasn’t until I went back to college where I was able to explore myself through my writings and creating a solid group of friends who would accept me no matter who I was. I did lose some old Marine Corps friends, mostly those who had been indoctrinated by the religious right, but that would be expected.
JR: The military has always been a fertile source for lots of homoerotic fantasies for a lot of guys, I’m sure… But in reality (and not to blow anyone’s fantasies!), life in the military is far from sexy… especially for a Midwestern teenager who is just setting foot into the outside world. How do you respond when people perceive the life of a soldier in terms of a gay porn fantasy?
EJ: Hmmm, well I will say, serving in the Marine Corps did lend itself to what a lot of the fantasies would lead to. After all we are typically at the peak of physical condition, shower together, rough house together, all scenes which would lead from a homo-social to homo-erotic level. We were young men, bravado was our middle name and confidence in ourselves came from every pore of our body. Sure seeing a bunch of sweaty Marines digging a foxhole or stringing a barbed wire fence in the remote jungles of South East Asia would be hot by any stretch of the imagination, however in those situations, we’re often thinking “Why did I get put on this shit detail?”, or thinking, “As soon as we’re done breaking camp, we can get the hell out of here and get some liberty.” So the day-to- day work routine of “Up in the morning with the rising sun, gonna run all day till the runnin’s done” is plenty of shower material for those looking in. On the inside, “Oh, he’s not going for another loop again is he?” (Laughs). Back in the barracks after a run, it’s who can get to the shower fast enough so we can shower and get to the chow hall for breakfast before we go to work.
JR: Gotcha! So, what’s the most important thing every one of us can do, on a day to day basis, to support our servicemen and servicewomen-- especially our GLBT brothers and sisters?
EJ: Write letters. Send them correspondence. It doesn’t have to be over the top, “you’re the greatest” every letter, but simply letting them know you care for them, are praying for them, and write about stuff going on back home. Sure you can ask what a day is like, but after reading my journal, you probably got a feel for “Yep, still here in the Saudi Arabia Desert”, same old boring routine, got up, went on radio watch, went on guard, got food. Talk about things you do so in that letter as our Soldiers are reading they can for a brief moment in time be in your shoes 10,000 miles away living your weekend and not the routine that we experience. I remember one “letter” from some friends who had recorded a tape and you could hear the water splashing in the background as it was a favorite place we would go, half way through they made a comment that “well for all you know, we could be sitting in the bathroom splashing water in the tub and it would sound the same.” That made my day. A song that to this day will cause me to well up and cry is sung by John Michael Montgomery, “Letters Home”, even thinking about it now and the message it has is bringing tears to my eyes. So, I need a second to compose myself...
JR: I understand! Now, as a bona fide expert on life in the military, we want to know: The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” promises to really change the destiny of many GLBT American military men and women. What is the most important thing that our leaders and we as citizens need to do to make for a smooth transition?
EJ: Education and acceptance. In the Marines, I never cared not really thought of a brother as African, Hispanic, Asian, we all wore green, we all bled red, we are all human, we all have different backgrounds. I would never have not done something for someone simply because they were different in some way. We are Marines first and foremost with a job to do. I think that explaining things as conversational as possible goes a long way. If you, in any way feel, inferior for anything, others will take advantage of that weakness and bully you. Be proud of who you are, accept who you are and do not let anybody take that away from you.
JR: Amen! So… Many men and women enter the military before they even turn 20. But as someone who has long since passed that age (ahem!), I am dying to know, do you think someone in their 30’s or early 40’s would be able to enlist and survive boot camp and the subsequent service, physically and/or mentally?
EJ: It is my understanding that you cannot enlist after a certain age, I forget exactly what the age is, but the physical challenge for someone in their 30’s or 40’s would be difficult, though I have seen many men and women in their 30’s and 40’s who could do just fine. However, the mental challenge, in my opinion would be more difficult as by those ages you already have settled in to who you are and having that Boot Camp mentality of someone screaming at you calling you low life scum suckers who couldn’t empty a boot full of piss if the directions were written on the bottom, would be difficult. (Laughs)
JR: In one of your entries, you state about the upcoming Marine Corps Ball: “This is going to be great, a bunch of ‘Jarheads’ in cammies with their dates and dancing in combat boots. I will look back on this someday and laugh.” Are we looking back and laughing yet?
EJ: Oh goodness, that time in the Philippines was a mix of emotions, to say the least. We were told so many times that the uniform was changing it was a running joke. During that time, I wasn’t much of a club goer or dancer but would go out and picturing a bunch of us in this situation bouncing around in combat boots and camouflage utilities was funny. I still laugh at that image.
JR: Now for the question I always ask: What are some of your tips for health and fitness?
EJ: Do what works for you. As I age, I find it harder to keep the extra pounds off. When I was preparing to compete for IML in 2010 I limited my intake, but not limit the things I liked. Staying active, and doing exercises you enjoy is good, just getting out there and walking, hiking, etc. If you like the gym, do that, if you like yard work, get a push mower. When I want to lose weight and gain muscle tone, I’ll order a dish and a to go container right away and put half of it away for “lunch tomorrow”.
JR: Thanks, Ernie! Now, one last question: Where can people buy the book?
EJ: The book can currently be found on the publisher’s website site
www.lulu.com as well as www.amazon.com. It is also available electronically for Kindle and other readers. You can search my name or the title. I will typically have several copies with me at events I attend throughout the year for those who want a signed copy. I will be at the Great Lakes Leather Alliance in Indianapolis, IN in August, so if folks are in the area and attending, I’ll see you there.
JR: I smell a roadtrip a-comin'!