An excerpt from Soldier of Change: From the Closet to the Forefront of the Gay Rights Movement (2014, Potomac Books) by Stephen Snyder-Hill.
Besides my parents and brother back home I had no ties to anyone. Joel, whom I had lost touch with while in Iraq, used to tell me about spouses in Germany who cheated on their deployed husbands. I can’t tell you how many relationships I saw the demise of in Iraq. A lot of my fellow soldiers were going through horrible divorces or breakups. I will never forget a man who killed himself in Desert Storm because his wife left him. That was one of my first exposures to suicide.
Fast-forward to September 22, 2011, when Rick Santorum answered my question by saying, “Sex has no place in the military.” I beg to differ. In both 1990 and 2011 I watched someone kill himself over relationship issues. I saw people constantly distracted because of a divorce back home or relationship woes. I watched people get sent home for inappropriate sexual conduct in the military. Rape is a big concern when soldiers are deployed. We constantly watch sexual harassment videos and receive training. Mr. Santorum needs to check his facts.
Being young and free of relationship woes didn’t mean I wasn’t in need of some R&R. The army had a chartered cruise ship, the Cunard Princess, in Bahrain. Soldiers in good standing could be entered into a lottery system for a three-day stay on the ship. Up to then I had never won anything in my life, but out of the whole battalion only one other soldier and I were selected to go. We flew in a Chinook out of the combat zone in Iraq. The ship went nowhere, but it was a place where soldiers could have a few drinks and fraternize around members of the opposite sex. I wasn’t interested in either, but I appreciated having a second chance to call home on the ship, and I was hopeful that I’d find a piano somewhere on board. I would often daydream about being able to play the piano while I was in Iraq. I needed that escape. The ship also had swimming, and the food was crazy! I took pictures of it to make everyone jealous when I got back to my unit in Iraq.
Unfortunately, the supper I ate on board my first night gave me food poisoning. I had never been sick like that before; I felt like I was going to die. The soldier who had come with me took me to the ship’s doctor. But my illness just wasn’t going away, so they took me off the ship to a local hospital. I am not sure where the ball was dropped, or who really dropped it, but somehow I was about to fall through the cracks. My friend ended up leaving me in the hospital because our R&R time was up, and he had to catch a flight back to our unit. I couldn’t go: I was too sick to travel. So I stayed in that hospital.
The moment it dawned on me that I might be in trouble was the first time I attempted to eat. I showed the civilians working my military id, and they said, “We don’t accept that here.” This was not good. I was somehow shifted to a non-military-led operation. As a PFC (private first class) I had no money. I had to find people who could help me find food. And I really needed to find the U.S. military folks. I was twenty years old and lost in Iraq. This was back at a time when the army wasn’t so great about tracking people. Nowadays it’s a lot different; ID cards and computers track all of a soldier’s movements in theater. Our non-computer-laminated id cards were not tracked in any way. I found some British troops who took me in and fed me. They were great guys. I stayed with them for a while, learned some new card games. I told them my story, and they couldn’t believe it. They said they would try to help me find my way back to the U.S. troops.
They put me on a vehicle, and we headed for a marine base. I felt a little safer and less lost once I found the marines. My first impression of the marines was funny. I witnessed two of them in a fistfight outside a chow hall. But some of them took me in and took care of me. They hooked me up with meals and eventually connected me with an army unit. The first person I talked to asked what unit I was with.
“HHB 2/1 FA,” I said. He didn’t know it. “Out of Zirndorf, Germany,” I said. He still had no clue who that was. I started getting nervous, realizing how lost I actually was. “First Armored Division,” I said. Nothing. He just shook his head, trying to make a connection with someone he knew.
I kept going up the echelons until he could figure out where to send me. It had now been more than two weeks, and nobody knew where I was; I was AWOL. A lot of those memories are blurry; I just remember I had to scrounge around to get fed. And of course I wrote about all of it in my journal.
Finally I was introduced to a soldier wearing our seventh core patch, a lieutenant colonel. I was so nervous to talk to him. I was only a PFC. I was also afraid I would be in trouble for getting lost. I walked up to him and told him my incredible story. He couldn’t believe what he heard. He immediately took me out and bought me a meal—a burger and fries (it’s funny how some details in life make such an impact). He arranged to get me on a flight back to our rear detachment in Saudi Arabia. The main body at that time was moving out of Iraq, so the detachment radioed them and told them I had been found.
What controversy I caused! I had to make statement after statement, and I know some heads rolled because of that mess. It’s so funny how clueless you are as a PFC. Being a major now, I realize the terror I probably caused our leadership. Once the unit was close enough, they drove me out by Humvee, so I could drive my own vehicle into Saudi with the rest of the unit. SFC Harper’s first reaction was to smack me on the head. He was a great guy, from a town that was close to my hometown; he was like my dad. I think his reaction came from relief that I was okay. When I was deployed, my mom used to call his wife all the time to talk, and somehow that made them both feel better.