Photographed by Martien Mulder on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in Wrightstown, NJ
KARL JOHNSON (left)
1st Lieutenant, U.S. Air Force
Like many great things, it started in a bar. After I was introduced by a mutual friend to Josh, my life changed drastically. I already knew who he was—about OutServe, and how it helped with the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” My first reaction was to try to not act impressed, but it’s hard to not let someone’s reputation define them. The next day we went out to Atlantic City (Josh’s idea). After that weekend, I knew I wanted him involved in my life, but I didn’t quite know how.Two weeks after we met, I got the opportunity to start blogging for Time about my experiences as a gay man serving in the military. Within days, I wrote my first post under the pseudonym Officer X.
Josh and I had a double life. I grew a thick skin to the homophobic comments people like Westboro Baptist Church would make. It was another thing to watch it happen to Josh. The closer we grew, the harder it was to sit there and be quiet.
I still look back on those months fondly. Josh and I would pontificate about what we were going through as activists—hiding under the veil of creepy silhouettes—and laugh. I’ll never forget the day I popped the top on an energy drink in the middle of the day at work after staying up until 2 a.m. to write the previous night. One of my coworkers asked what I was doing in my time off, and if I was some sort of crime-fighting vigilante superhero at night. I laughed, but I think deep down, it felt like a version of that.
The longer the repeal process took, the more I couldn’t wait for it to be over. The days of anticipation leading up to the repeal on September 20 were excruciating. We had both repeatedly broken the rules. There are strict policies in place with regard to how individuals in the military interact with the media in an attempt to keep one unified and standardized message -- one team, one fight.
On September 19, I remember pacing in my small apartment in Philadelphia. My phone was hot in my hand after all of the calls I was making to my friends. Within the first two minutes of the clock striking midnight, Josh and I finally declared our relationship status on Facebook -- that made it seem real!
I met Josh in Washington the next day, one of the biggest days of our lives. We met back at his hotel after a busy day of meeting with policymakers and the press. We had a few minutes to get ready and head out the door to a repeal celebration where Rachel Maddow interviewed Josh live via satellite. I stood in the back and couldn’t have been more proud. We left the party for a smaller place where we could talk with our friends. That’s where I told Josh that I loved him and how much he means to me. At that moment, I saw one of my favorite Josh traits: the biggest and most triumphant smile grew on his face. I knew at that moment, no matter what fate awaited us back on base, we were OK.
I headed back home to Philly to get ready for work the next day. Josh was supposed to head to California for another event, but he was exhausted, so he decided to relax in D.C. for a day.
When he finally showed up at my apartment, Josh wasn’t feeling well. It didn’t take long to diagnose the sharp pain in his side to be a problem with his appendix. I rushed him to the emergency room. I spoke with the nurse at the front desk and gave her his military ID.
I froze when she asked my relationship to “the patient.” I’d spent the better part of a decade telling white lies to keep strangers from knowing I’m gay. I had to rewire my brain fast. My heart beat faster, and I said, “I’m his partner.” The nurse smiled and gave me a wristband and said I was a family member who could stay after visiting hours.
Josh recovered from surgery, and we’ve been able to go back to our daily jobs in the military. That includes deployments. I’m currently deployed to the Middle East, and Josh and I are doing our best to get by while being thousands of miles apart, another task made easier without the paranoia of someone finding out we’re gay.
I had Josh put in the paperwork before I left so that we can call each other twice a week—“morale calls,” a privilege reserved for spouses and family -- and we talk on Skype without the fear of our conversation being intercepted. The military lifestyle puts added stress on any couple. By staying in touch with the people you love, the distances are infinitely more bearable.
1st Lieutenant, U.S. Air Force
I go camping by myself once a year, but it was raining that weekend, so I cancelled my plans. My friend said he was heading out to a bar in Philly. Since Karl was new in the squadron, my friend brought him along. We hit it off right away. He has this way with his hair. The military has strict regulations on hair, but somehow he manages to do this faux hawk thing. We had this immediate connection, and I suggested that the next day we go to Atlantic City. We spent the rest of the weekend together.
He wasn’t involved in activism when we first met. But soon after, he started writing for Time. That was the strangest part to me: He started stepping into my world -- both of us living under pseudonyms. I didn’t like it, but it has made us stronger. I trusted and felt comfortable with him.
Our traveling is ridiculous, especially when you add on the traveling we had to do around the repeal of DADT. He’s a pilot, too, so he’s traveling to Afghanistan and being deployed for longer. There were times when he was gone a week or more, and we said, “We have to suck it up.” Sometimes, we’ll travel for an event or a speech -- a meeting in D.C., which is five hours of driving—and maybe we’ll get back at 1 a.m. and both of us have to be at work at 6 a.m. But we’d tell each other: “We have to get this done.”
The day of the repeal of DADT was extremely busy. It started in the morning, bright and early. The next day, right after the repeal, I had to suck it up and get to Vegas. I came back to Karl’s place and told him my stomach hurt. They don’t have E.R.s at base hospitals anymore, so we went to a public hospital. That was the first time I had to go to a hospital with someone I was dating. I couldn’t move; I couldn’t talk. I felt like I was dying. It was awful. What was awful, too, was that I had to go back to work and I thought, It’s going to look like I’m skipping work. Then I realized it was the first time my commander had to interact with my boyfriend. I didn’t have time to think about it. I remember being drugged up and Karl telling my commander he was my boyfriend. It was weird to hear that. That’s when DADT repeal became real for me.
Karl gave me this stuffed puppy when I was “dying” in the hospital. I didn’t have a pillow that felt right, so I would put the dog under my head. We call him Bandit; he’s this miniature husky. Now, when he goes to Afghanistan, he’ll take it with him, or I’ll keep it and sleep with him when he’s gone.
As told to Jerry Portwood