One Marine’s Dying Wish
By FRANK BRUNI – New York Times
Published: January 4, 2014
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — WE don’t get any say about the kind of world we’re born into — about whether it’s prepared for the likes of us, whether it will open its arms. Hal Faulkner certainly didn’t get the world he deserved. It was needlessly cruel to him, senselessly judgmental. For the most part, he made peace with that. But over the last few months, with cancer spreading fast through his body and time running out, his thoughts turned to one aspect of that landscape that he could perhaps revisit, one wrinkle he might be able to revise, a wrong he had a chance of righting before his death.
Back in 1956, when he was 22, he was discharged from the Marines after more than three years of proud service. There were no real blots on his record. No complaints of incompetence or laziness or insubordination. There was only this: A man with whom Hal had spent some off-duty time informed Hal’s commanding officer that Hal was gay. The commanding officer suspected that this was true and, on that basis, determined that Hal had to go. The discharge was classified as “other than honorable.” “It wrecked me,” Hal told me when I visited him on Friday at his home here on the 16th floor of a high-rise with a panoramic view of the Atlantic. The morning was gloriously sunny, but tears streamed down his cheeks. Although more than half a century has passed since that harsh judgment — he’s 79 now — it has always stayed with him, a tight, stubborn knot of sadness and anger. “They gave up on me,” he said, referring to the Marines. “I never forget it.” He was haunted in particular by those three words — “other than honorable” — and wanted more than anything to have them excised from his epitaph. That became his dying wish: that those words not outlive him.
Before federal law was changed in 2011, more than 110,000 gay, lesbian and bisexual people were discharged from the United States military over time because of their sexual orientation. And until the 1990s, when the policy tweak known as “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” vaguely softened the prohibition against gays in the armed services, it was common for such discharges to be dishonorable ones that barred gay veterans from receiving any benefits and sometimes disqualified them from civilian jobs they later sought. But now that the military accepts gays, there is also a process that permits those who were dishonorably discharged to appeal for reclassifications of those dismissals as honorable. A military spokesman said last week that he didn’t know how many veterans had sought to take advantage of it, or with what success. But Hal caught wind of it, and knew that he had to try.
He grew up on a cattle ranch in northern Florida, in a strict Southern Baptist family. He was one of eight children. His father died when he was 7, and his family struggled financially afterward. Although Hal (a nickname for Alfred) graduated from high school, college wasn’t in the cards. He enlisted in 1953 and attended boot camp in South Carolina from June to August, “the hottest months of the year,” as he said in an email in September to OutServe-SLDN, an advocacy group for gay service members. He was telling them his story in the hopes of rallying them to his cause. He rose in the Marines from private first class to corporal and then to sergeant, and he landed a plum assignment in the Philippines. “I would have ascended to the top,” he told me. “And yet I couldn’t be what I wanted to be.” He prospered nonetheless. In a company that sold heavy construction and road-making equipment, he worked his way up to an executive sales position. “I helped build Walt Disney World,” he said. But he grew increasingly conflicted about his hand in paving so much of Florida and switched courses, joining a firm that made tools and technology for guarding against environmental degradation.
He lived well: expensive cars, world travel, a collection of Native American art. But the bigotry that ended his military career followed him beyond that point, and so did the fear of it. He lost another treasured job, he said, because of his sexual orientation. And from the 1950s through at least the 1970s, he felt that financial security and success hinged on a certain degree of secrecy. Had he been more open about being gay, he said: “I wouldn’t be here today. I’d probably be on the street.”
It wasn’t until 2005 that he finally brought Charles, his longtime partner and “the love of my life,” to a big family gathering. A few years later, Charles died, and Hal now lives alone, with round-the-clock help from a home health care attendant. When he received a diagnosis of cancer in his lungs, liver and adrenal glands a year ago, he was given about six months to live. He’s at least 50 pounds thinner than he once was and moves through his apartment on a tiny scooter. He’s almost deaf, his speech is labored and his thoughts are sometimes confused. To piece together his story, I relied heavily on two nieces who visit him regularly, Michelle and Deborah, and on Anne Brooksher-Yen, the New York lawyer who took on his discharge appeal. The case came to her only two months ago, when doctors were saying that Hal might have only weeks left. She was racing the clock. She pressed the military for an expedited decision. It arrived in a letter in mid-December, and she traveled all the way to Fort Lauderdale for a gathering on Friday afternoon at which the letter was presented to Hal.
JOHN GILLESPIE, a member of OutServe-SLDN’s board of directors, traveled here, too, from Mississippi, and he arranged for two local Marines, in uniform, to be on hand to congratulate Hal, who’d been told what the letter said and would now get a special moment to savor it. “He lived his entire adult life with this shame and this stain on his honor,” John said to me, explaining why he insisted on creating that moment. “The world has changed so much that with the stroke of a pen, that stain and that shame are gone.” At the gathering, in a penthouse apartment a few floors above Hal’s, he was given a red Marine cap, but when he tried to put it on, he screamed. There are painful nodules on his scalp from the rapidly spreading cancer.
“They hurt so bad,” he said to John, Anne, his two nieces and several friends from the building. But he wasn’t complaining. He was making clear that he wasn’t being discourteous by not wearing the gift. John read from the letter, including its assurance that Hal’s military record would “be corrected to show that he received an honorable discharge.” When Hal took the letter from him, he didn’t hold it so much as knead it, pressing tighter and tighter, maybe because he was visibly fighting tears. “I don’t have much longer to live,” he said, “but I shall always remember it.” He thanked Anne. He thanked his nieces. He thanked the Marines. He even thanked people in the room whom he had no reason to thank. Someone went off to mix him a Scotch-and-soda, and he finally gave in. He sobbed. “It’s often said that a man doesn’t cry,” he said. “I am a Marine and I am a man. So please forgive me.” His remarks hung there, because he’d used the present tense. Am a Marine. And because he was saying he was sorry, this veteran whose country owed him an apology for too long.