Conquering You – A Naval Academy Graduate’s Story of Love, Loss, and Finding His Place

Carrying a log in full combat gear, treading water with a rifle in both hands, or marching in a dress uniform in the middle of summer had never appealed to me, but as I scrolled through the United States Naval Academy’s website during my junior year of high school, suddenly, it seemed fun. My initial response to the school was cynical disbelief closely followed by awe and finally settling on an unyielding desire to become a part of everything I was observing. From my mother’s desktop computer in the kitchen of our quiet home in the small country town of Pineville, Louisiana, I saw the path to Bancroft Hall begin to take shape. I knew the journey would be long, difficult, and replete with emotional hurdles, but the financial relief and prestige afforded by that institution demanded my attendance.

Through the application and acceptance process, even during my first two years of study, one thought always penetrated even my most concrete focus: you are gay; you do not belong here.In no way, shape, or form could I persuade myself that I belonged to the institution that I had given countless hours of sweat and effort. There were only a few others like me, and by military law, even my existence was forbidden. On the surface, some may think that this is a minor thing, that one does not need acceptance or approval for success. That may be true…for them. The lingering fear that my homosexuality would be discovered and result in my expulsion and mother’s shame forced me to keep to myself. Living, marching, eating, drilling, and studying with 130 company mates daily made my reclusive attitude difficult to maintain, but when driven by fear, the impossible is possible.

Generally an alpha personality, this introspective phenomenon was strange to me, and the Naval Academy is not the place for people who are afraid to take charge. My introversion secured my exclusion from company-mates, from deep lasting friendships, and from academic success. An arduous academic curriculum topped with military pomp and circumstance before, during, and after class can only be surmounted with the help of your company-mates. The company unit is a microcosm within the greater Naval Academy world in that you are not only affected by the influence of the Institution, but you are also vulnerable to the ebb and flow of leadership personalities within the company as well. My cascading disappearance of self within school walls was counterbalanced, however, by my vibrant personality and escalating ability on the track and field team.

I made my fondest memories, closest friends, and strongest supporters on the track. It was as if two worlds existed; the militant and abrasive environment inside Bancroft Hall, and the free, expressive atmosphere of intercollegiate sports. I adapted to each as best I could. When I pounded on that red turf and thrust my fists in the air, I felt as if I belonged. I would think…this track…this school…this is mine. I am where I need to be. I never remotely approached that emotion while running military drills or sitting through a physics/chemistry/electrical engineering class.

Track and field was my lifeline. Running track facilitated my academic survival and one specific experience cemented my assimilation into the realm of those who belong. It was the winter of my sophomore year. Indoor track had left me with a torn hamstring, left foot stress fracture, and relentless shin splints, all of which I managed to recover from in time for our championship indoor meet. The most senior sprinter on the squad, I was scheduled to run the 200m, 400m and 4x400m races. I had one of the first races of the meet, so as soon as my team arrived at the stadium, I began my warm-up. I listened to my iPod and routinely shuffled through the bass-laden songs to keep my intensity high. Although no different than any other warm-up, this one would forge itself in my memory. Then, like lightning striking a piano cord, these lyrics bolted through my body, heading directly toward my heart: “It’s like I can’t breathe. It’s like I can’t see anything, nothing but you. I’m addicted to you. It’s like I can’t think, without you interrupting me. In my thoughts, in my dreams, you’re taking over me.”

Still processing a recent break-up and teammate betrayal, Kelly Clarkson’s “Addicted” spoke too closely to my reaction over a lost love. Suddenly, my heart clenched, the stadium vanished, and I was left alone with thoughts of him. I desperately hoped that he would not be here to support his new boyfriend. Not tonight. Not when the pressure of a championship meet was already eroding my confidence. I just knew that if I saw him, I would go into an emotional panic and lose complete focus, and subsequently, every race.

I did a few sprints around the track and meditated on his absence. The referee blew the warning whistle and all the competitors walked to the starting line. As I bounced toward the starting line, I began to regain confidence. I glanced momentarily into the stands to my right. He was not there. My self-assurance grew. I scanned the crowd in the bleachers to my left. I scanned for his all too familiar bushy eyebrows and electrifying smile. He was not there. I was ready.

I remember we had dated for eight months. He was athletic, intelligent, caring, cultured and much more, so when he told me he didn’t feel the same about me, I was devastated. I understood there were strains on our relationship; he didn’t have any guy friends in whom he could confide. I was never certain that I wanted a boyfriend, and we were both academy students – that alone was a recipe for disaster. I recognized the difficulties in our relationship, yet the prospect of enduring the academy without him hurt. And just when I thought the pain could not get any worse, he told me he had been talking to my teammate about our problems, that my teammate was his confidante and friend, and not too long after our breakup, my teammate became his boyfriend. I was overcome by that feeling one has just before waking from a dream in which you are falling – except, I was conscious. His revelation placed me in physical pain. Desolate, betrayed and alone were the only emotions I managed to identify.
But all that was behind me now.

I walked toward my blocks with an uncontainable air of assurance. I kneeled inside my blocks. I was ready for this. I foolishly glanced up again to the bleacher on my right and my heart sank. He was there…watching me. Our eyes met, and the eight months with – and year without – him flashed through my mind … I savored each emotion I felt: joy, confusion, doubt, sadness, anger, and my last, rage. How could he come to my meet after breaking my heart, and of all things, to support that awful excuse for a teammate? The apparent disregard for how his presence might affect me hurt. It was a cruel slap in the face, intentional or not.

Normally, I am a calm and practical person, but I knew that his attendance would either enhance or significantly hinder my performance in this championship meet. I made the decision to allow sadness in my heart, but only as a fuel for the rage I needed to annihilate the competition.

When the referee fired the gun, I bolted from my starting blocks, quickly picked up speed, lifting my knees higher and higher, and extending my legs further and further. I felt his eyes bear into my skin. Every step I took was like a jab to the heart, knowing that once the race was finished, I would lose him again, – his attention, and for the brief moment that I had it, his heart. I couldn’t lose. I refused. Emotionally broken, I ran as if maybe, just maybe, my victory would result in something more valuable than a first place finish: a second chance.

I won the 400m for the first time in my career. I continued to feed on that same dejection which led to a victory in the 200m and 4x400m races as well. At the end of the meet, I was named Most Valuable Player for Track.

He never even said hello.

Notable accomplishments were almost always just out of reach. With most of my time spent in class and in the dorm, my introverted persona often had more of an opportunity to grow further into itself than my outgoing personality on the track. This one experience, this one instant, changed me forever. That night, I found resolve and discovered that perseverance and heart bears its own sweet fruit. I discovered that no matter how much we hurt or how deep the emotional scars pierce our being, we can turn that emotion and those negative experiences into fuel – fuel to power through the obstacles that are before us and prove – to ourselves and to those who have hurt us – that their betrayal does not define us.

That night, a sense of invincibility permeated the air. Mountains were not so tall, the ocean wasn’t so vast, and the moon and stars were just within arms reach. For a brief moment, I was the best. I was where I was meant to be…and most importantly, I belonged.

  1. Gene F. Barfield
    August 31, 2011 at 8:36 PM

    Your experience at the Academy is something I can’t relate to personally as I was an enlisted man, for ten years. But some things you said resonate for all of us who served, and like you, I was a sailor.

    Never let anyone tell you that you don’t belong. You do. You met some of the toughest standards around just to get into the Academy. You already passed the main hurdle. The rest is in your head.

    Being gay in the Navy was no small challenge at times. After completing nuclear power training I reported aboard my first ship, USS NATHANAEL GREENE (SSBN636) in New London. Already in the service for two years and a Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class I was terrified that anyone would find out I was gay. But I was in for some surprises. Aboard ship on my first patrol I hears many comments about other crew members, one in particular who was apparently widely known to be gay. I listened carefully for the words of disdain and ridicule, but I never heard them. He was a nuke electrician, EM2, and well respected as was his boyfriend on another ship. They socialized as a couple, when in port, with other crew members.

    After several years aboard I was as out as he was, which is to say that most of the Engineering Department and many others aboard both knew and did not care that I was also gay. What counted was whether or not I was a good shipmate, a dependable member of a community. I was welcomed and protected from harm. It is an experience I will cherish forever. I cannot believe that experience was unique to me. This was in the early ’80s.

    Regarding other comments you made, I will also say that twenty eight years ago I met the man of my life. At that time he was a YN2, wearing two Navy Achievement Medals and a host of other decorations. It can happen if you let it. You can serve, you can excfel and you can be proud. And you can be happy. Your inner strength and your inner self will be your guide, and others will sense and respond to you on that basis. Bad things can happen. But all these years later I can say, with Tim at my side, that our cumulative total of eighteen years of service are the formative basis of our lives.

    Now, unlike those before you, you can also be open about who you are, and your triumphs and tribulations will still depend on your own self to a greater extent than not. You sound like a winner. In fact, in many respects the tale you’ve told us proves that you are. Just keep going – the course you set sounds full of promise.

    Be strong, and you will be happy. Turn to your true friends, and know that an awful lot of us who don’t even know your name are with you. Every step of the way.

    May you go from strength to strength.

    • J. Green
      September 2, 2011 at 8:08 PM


      Like you, my entire naval career as been with the engineering department. They are the bread and butter of the ship. They provide us with heat, water, electricity, power, everything! I’ve served as E-DIVO and AUXO, and I can attest to the fact that if you take care of your guys (women and men), have a good heart, and truly do your best in their interest, they will take care of you no matter your orientation…and they always seem to know ;)

      I love my engineers! Thank you for your service and congratulations! It seems like you’ve found a great relay partner with whom to run this race we call life.

  2. Camp Pendleton
    August 31, 2011 at 9:44 AM

    Two years after graduating from the Academy, I realized and accepted I’m gay. While I still have yet to go on a date and don’t really know how to go about the business of meeting anyone, I’m hopeful there’s someone for me. Your story is poignant, and I have to wonder how many of us there were, and are, in the service academies. How many take the road you did by withdrawing from the camaraderie or, as I did, become one of the alpha males in the hope that no one would suspect what we’re thinking as we pound our chests?

    I’m glad your athletic successes were able to assuage that loneliness you felt, that loneliness which I felt, too. You’re a strong man. The betrayal by your teammate, and the silence with which you had to confront it must have been excruciatingly painful. To be hamstrung by the rules and the code that force us to keep our pain and even our joy to ourselves can make you crazy at times. I’m glad you kicked ass at that meet.

    Everyday, I look around and I wonder how many of us are there? This is my career. I’ll do everything I can to make it easier for those coming after me. I’m sure you’ll do the same. I wish you continued success.

    • J. Green
      September 2, 2011 at 8:00 PM

      Camp Pendleton,

      I truly appreciate your empathy. Just as you alluded, there are many routes one may take when dealing with homosexuality in the service academy and in the military in general. I survived because I had friends with whom I could be myself. We all need that outlet.

      The period that encompasses my story was a very tough time for me. Even after everything had happened from the breakup to the new relationship, seeing him in the halls caused my heart to jump in my throat and my stomach to sink. Ironically, I preferred that dreadful feeling to not seeing him at all.

      I digress. I will do all I can to make the military an accepting environment. And with your help and the help of OutServe and the many other GLBT organizations, the word will get out that no one is alone, they have someone, someplace, who understands and has lived through it. That’s our goal here at OutServe and I humbly thank you for your support.

      • Camp Pendleton
        September 5, 2011 at 11:39 PM

        There were many, many times at the academy that I wished for someone in whom to confide. The deceit about drove me crazy. I want to be an honest person, and I kept thinking that all of the people who considered me to be their friend didn’t really know me. I was playing a role, and it was pretty tiring at times. I read Gene’s comment and am heartened by it. I think if you go out there with your head up then people, for the most part, will treat you as you treat yourself. If you respect yourself and you put that out there, they’ll pick up on it and return it. For the most part. There will always be jerks. It’s crazy, but everyday I keep thinking, “This is the day I’ll meet someone.” lol. I’m still learning. What are they called? Baby steps?

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