by Richard Dieterle
MARCH, 1968 — The status of homosexuals in the Army has been a topic of great interest in recent decades. We had a rather bad experience with it, which may be judged as atypical, but which deserves to be related.
First, however, a necessary digression. Our rather obnoxious CO that we had for awhile when we were in I Corps let it be known that the company was to have a nickname. Oddly enough, we knew nothing of the actual nickname, "Alphagators" that had been extant just a few years before. The CO imagined that he was filling a void, but the truth is that such monikers go extinct precisely because no one uses them. In a rare tribute to democracy, a form of government which the Army abhors, he threw it open to suggestions. I suspect that this was, like most such gestures in the Army, a sham. The name "The Professionals" was chosen, probably because it was the CO's idea. At any rate, it seemed odd, since about 90% of the company now consisted of draftees rather than regular, professional soldiers.
While we were thus in I Corps struggling with group identity, one day we had mail call out in the boonies. One black guy who didn't really stand out much began to receive one letter after another. He had gathered a pile of about a dozen letters. He opened one of them and said, "Listen to this!" and began to read a blatantly homosexual letter. He laughed and so did a lot of other guys standing around. Then he opened another letter whose writer spelled out a number of homosexual things that he would like to have done to the recipient. And so it was, letter after letter. He laughed and said, "Why are all these people writing to me? I've never heard of any of them!" "Jesus," I said, "that really is strange." The guy standing next to me said in a hushed voice, "That's how homos make themselves known." That came as a surprise to me, but it was pretty clear that that must be what was going on. It was strange to see a homosexual in Vietnam, since most people had no desire to end up there, and many even faked homosexuality so that they could avoid the Army altogether. And yet, here he was, even though he did not seem in any way a patriotic zealot, and was obviously not too shy about letting it be known that he was attracted to men. This revelation made people a bit uneasy about him, yet the degree of this discomfort could easily be exaggerated.
One fine day, not too long afterwards, we got a visit from the Marines accompanied by a translator. They were carrying a thick bamboo pole suspended from which was a sling rather like a hammock. Lying in this sling was a gook who looked to be easily 80 years or more. The Marine in front said, "One of your guys raped this man. Take a look." The man turned on his side, then lowered his trousers and spread his cheeks. Each cheek had what looked like a reddish burn mark that terminated in the anus. The translator said in Vietnamese, "Who did this to you?!" The man rolled over and pointed at the very man who had received all the homosexual mail. Even though he was black, you could see his face flush as he gave an unconvincing, passionate denial. Not long afterwards, he was put on a helicopter to the rear to face court martial.
While he was gone we had occasion to pass by the Marines when we were headed out on an operation. "Oh look! Here come the corn holers! Ha ha!" Some guys tried to take this in good humor, but they chuckled while looking down at the ground. "Hey, aren't those the corn holers?" called out another Marine. At this point the embarrassment clearly exceeded the humor. This certainly solved the problem of an authentic nickname. Now we were "The Corn Holers." "Oh well," I opined, "it's still better than 'The Professionals'."
Now there was a decided irony in punishing someone in the Nam. I don't care how tough LBJ was, even if you got a hundred lashes, it was better than having your leg blown off, or being disemboweled, not to mention being killed. To some people in the field, LBJ looked pretty attractive. So they took to making men serve their sentence, then finish their full tour of duty in the field afterwards. Still, it was a vacation of sorts. They didn't really know what to do with a homosexual rapist. He stuck to his story of innocence, so they apparently saw no way to go forward, supposing that they ever wanted to in the first place, since back in the World a story about US troops homosexually raping an 80 year old Vietnamese would not do a lot to garner support for the war. So they sent him right back out into the field, and made it widely known that they would be please to hear of his assassination. The Corn Holers, formerly known as The Professionals, were now invited to do something as unprofessional as murdering one of their own members. Now killing Americans was not unheard of, but this guy was not an officer, he was only a corn holer. They apparently thought that we had some kind of profound prejudicial hatred for him. Actually, we thought that he was a bit crazy, but not in a way likely to affect us. After all, was he going to hump somebody in a prone with two other guys sleeping right next to him, and another guy on duty in the foxhole in front? I couldn't even figure out how he was alone long enough to rape the ugly old man. So apart from a queasiness in sleeping in proximity to him, no one had the passion to contemplate murder. I just moved my air mattress another couple of inches away from him when I had the misfortune to be pulling guard at the same foxhole. Nobody knew what had happened to him in the rear, since no one ever raised the subject with him, let alone the matter of rape and homosexuality. Nothing ever did happen to him, although they may have eventually transported him out as "unsuitable."