True Stories

A book cover reading UNFRIENDLY FIRE: HOW THE GAY BAN UNDERMINES THE MILITARY AND WEAKENS AMERICA; NATHANIEL FRANK with a rainbow-striped military ribbon on a white background

In his book, Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America, Nathaniel Frank profiles individuals whose lives have been impacted by "don't ask, don't tell." From a young woman whose studies at West Point were cut short, to a discharged Arab language specialist, to an Army private murdered because he was gay, the following excerpts from Frank’s book reveal the policy’s effects on real lives.

Barry Winchell

In 1999, an 18-year-old private named Calvin Glover, suspecting that [Private First Class Barry] Winchell was gay and, encouraged by a permissive culture of homophobic harassment in the barracks, goaded Winchell into a fistfight. Winchell (who was dating a transsexual at the time) won the duel, and the vanquished Glover suffered derision from peers….

What does it mean to lose a fistfight to a queer? …in the aggressively masculine culture of the U.S. Army, it can mean shame deep enough to retaliate with the brutal murder of your victor. Aided by a friend who handed him the weapon and shared his outspoken hatred of homosexuals, Glover sought to avenge his shaken manhood. On July 5, 1999, Glover took a baseball bat to the bed of Winchell, 21, and bludgeoned him to death as he slept.… Glover was convicted of premeditated murder and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

Winchell’s murder was probably preventable. He had been the target of daily anti-gay taunting for months leading up to his murder…and was repeatedly threatened with violence. Just two days before his murder, Winchell received a death threat in the presence of at least one noncommissioned officer.

Because of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” Winchell feared expulsion if he complained about abuse, yet following the rules did him no good. Even as Winchell remained silent in accordance with the law, soldiers and officers flagrantly violated the policy by harassing and threatening Winchell, investigating his sexuality, and failing to enforce prohibitions against anti-gay abuse.

From Unfriendly Fire by Nathaniel Frank. Copyright © 2009 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

Fred Fox

Fred Fox was an enlisted infantry soldier deployed to combat in Somalia during the infamous battle of Mogadishu…. Ten years later, Fox became an officer supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. His time in the army was a valuable part of his life, but, for much of it, he struggled mightily with anxiety around trust and relationships, particularly feelings of anger and fear of violence—his own and that of others.

By the end of his service in 2003, Fox was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by the Veterans Administration during out-processing. The tragedy was that he had been unable to speak openly with army counselors during his service. He had occasionally sought such help, but each time he was asked pressing questions about his inner life, he hesitated, and ended up lying about all the things that he really needed to say to address his vulnerable mental health.

“I was asked if I was having problems with relationships,” he said, which he was. “But it was easier just to say I’m not having any relationships rather than open up a whole avenue of other questions you can’t respond to.” Worst of all, it was impossible for Fox to parse whether his relationship problems were due to unresolved issues about his sexuality, the strictures of the policy or some form of traumatic stress disorder, which in the military continues to be a source of shame, just like homosexuality.

“Having spent twelve years in the Army denying my homosexuality, this was just one more thing that’s easy for me to bury,” he said of what he eventually learned was PTSD. “And this isn’t something you want to bury, because then it becomes a bomb you’ve sort of hidden somewhere.” “Don’t ask, don’t tell” just helped him repress his feelings further, which was not, Fox concluded, a recipe for mental health.

From Unfriendly Fire by Nathaniel Frank. Copyright © 2009 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

Nikki Galvan

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point is the elite training ground for army officers. Like all military commands, West Point has extensive counseling available to ensure the wellbeing of service members. So when Cadet Nikki Galvan’s mother died, an academy counselor was available to help her deal with her grief and suggested she keep a journal as part of her mourning process. In it, Galvan confided, or so she thought, about a number of very private emotions she was facing, and one of these was her sexuality. Not long after she started her journal, she was asked by her lieutenant colonel pointblank—in front of four other cadets—if she was a lesbian. Instead of answering, Galvan submitted a complaint. But rather than taking action against the improper questioning of Galvan, the army seized her personal diary and private emails under the pretext that officials were investigating a reported “disturbance in the ranks.” An investigation ensued; the report states that Galvan violated regulations “by making various statements in her diary indicating a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts or conduct.”

Galvan said she felt “violated and humiliated,” and that her friends stopped talking to her out of fear they would be suspected of being gay. “My cadet life became unbearable,” she remembered. Facing a discharge, Galvin resigned. West Point tried to recoup $100,000 in tuition funds, based on failing to honor the service obligation that cadets incur by attending for free. Her departure ended an excruciating ordeal for her, but marked just the beginning for West Point, where officials expanded the investigation into an outright witch hunt that took aim at thirty other women at the academy.

From Unfriendly Fire by Nathaniel Frank. Copyright © 2009 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

Ian Finkenbinder

In 2003, Ian Finkenbinder served an eight-month combat tour with the army’s 3rd Infantry Division, which spearheaded the invasion of Iraq with its “thunder run” to Baghdad. He was tasked with human intelligence gathering, one of the most critical ingredients in the effort to battle the deadly Iraqi insurgency. His job was to translate radio transmissions, interview Iraqi citizens who had information to volunteer, and screen native speakers for possible employment in translation units. His efforts were essential to keeping U.S. soldiers safe and winning support from civilians on the streets of Iraq.

Finkenbinder was a rare and coveted commodity. Having attended the army’s elite Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey, he graduated in the fall of 2002 with proficiency in Arabic just as the United States was scrambling to fill dire shortfalls of linguists. After receiving the Army Commendation Medal while in Iraq, as well as the Good Conduct Medal and the Army Achievement Medal, Finkenbinder finished his tour and returned to his unit’s base at Fort Stewart, Georgia. There he was confronted with a “moral and personal question,” as he put it, and a practical one as well: Could he continue to serve an institution that discriminated against him?

Finkenbinder was gay; and though he had done all he could to follow the rules, his life under "don't ask, don't tell" was becoming untenable. He loved the army, but as a linguist training in the intelligence community, he had become accustomed to serving amid educated, tolerant people. The atmosphere at Fort Stewart was different. He got wind of people gossiping about his sexuality. Because of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” he knew he could not confront them and had no recourse with the chain of command. It was a paralyzing, demeaning and worrisome experience. “I reached the point where I couldn’t live under fear of retribution,” he recalled.

So in 2004, he wrote a letter to his commander stating that he would continue serving so long as he could be openly gay. In January 2005, the 3rd Infantry became the first army unit to cycle back into Iraq since the war began in March 2003. Finkenbinder stayed behind, having received an honorable discharge for Christmas. His commander was distraught, but his hands were tied by "don't ask, don't tell"; he was required to initiate discharge proceedings once Finkenbinder had announced he was gay.

“There was definitely a feeling of, ‘We could really use you,’” Finkenbinder recalled of the moment when his commander learned he would not be staying with the unit. “I was an Arabic linguist, and those are pretty valuable over there.”

From Unfriendly Fire by Nathaniel Frank. Copyright © 2009 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

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