War Journal

SSG Nathan Welles is a squad leader assigned to the 504th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade from Ft. Hood, Texas. He is currently deployed to Asadabad, Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. This is his third combat deployment.

Here is his story:

SSG Nathan Welles
In November of 2006, my unit conducted a mission in a few villages approximately two hours from our Forward Operating Base, FOB Warrior, in Kirkuk, Iraq. Around 2:30 p.m., after setting a cordon around one of these villages, my squad and I entered to meet with the local leaders and assess the needs of the community. While we were speaking to one of the men from the town, our Iraqi Army counterparts radioed that they were under attack in a nearby neighborhood. We quickly returned to our Humvees and raced to the aid of the Iraqi Army unit. Upon arrival, we established a base of fire and began suppressing the enemy position. Our medic leapt from his truck and aided an Iraqi Soldier who had been shot in the bicep. As the medic treated the wounded Iraqi Soldier, our truck’s gunner laid down suppressive fire and I ran to secure my sector, stopping close to a soldier from another unit. This soldier knew I was gay and had made it clear to me that he didn’t like it. As I thought about that awkward conversation, a sniper round pierced his right elbow and lodged in his hip. There was a lot of blood.

Without a moment’s hesitation, I dragged him to cover and rendered first aid in an attempt to at least slow the bleeding. My Kevlar kept sliding down the front of my face as I tried to determine how close the nearest soldier was. His blood covered my hands, my eye protection was fogged up, and sweat dripped from the tip of my nose. I tried desperately to keep pressure on his hip to stop the bleeding. He was screaming in pain, and he was begging me not to let him die. I knew how badly he disliked me. I knew the hatred and homophobia in his heart. I also knew that it didn’t matter one bit. I had a duty to keep that soldier alive and I wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of that.

As the MEDEVAC helicopter disappeared over the horizon and I looked around at the other soldiers who were still on the battlefield with me, I knew that they had changed their minds about my capabilities as a soldier. For the few who knew I was gay, they knew that regardless of my sexuality, I knew how to fight and I was still willing to risk my life for my fellow soldiers.

I grew up like most kids in small, middle-class America. My family didn’t have much money, and neither did my friends’ families. Gossip ruled the social circles, so every family pried and every family kept secrets. I learned early in life to bottle up my feelings or risk sharing them with the whole town, thus exposing myself to criticism and teasing.

My mother was diagnosed with liver cancer when I was ten and was fortunate enough to undergo a successful transplant and recovery. She divorced my adoptive father two years later, and at age 12, we left our quiet town for a fast-paced city where people no longer had time to pay attention to everyone else’s problems. The anonymity was wonderful and changed my whole outlook on life. As good as life was, my secret still weighed on my heart, just below the surface of whatever emotion I was feeling at the time. Like many gay teens, I wrestled with what God thought of marriage and sex. I decided at some point that God most likely didn’t care about skin color, gender or sexual orientation. Despite that conclusion, I didn’t want to admit to myself that I was gay, because admitting it meant validating it. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be gay as much as I wanted to be normal. I saw the two as mutually exclusive.

U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nadine Y. Barclay/Released

I joined the Army in 2004 after graduating from high school. I wanted to be the model soldier, and with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) in place, this naturally meant being heterosexual. Throughout my training, I fought rumors about my sexuality. I met my first gay soldier at intelligence school in Ft. Huachuca, Ariz. We bonded over our shared adversity and quickly became friends. It felt good to be honest and open with someone. Our friendship naturally led to more rumors and awkward looks from the other soldiers. Twenty-two weeks of rumors and gossip later, I graduated and was sent to Ft. Hood, Texas.

Finally at my first permanent duty station, I tried to recreate myself as the model heterosexual soldier. I wanted to be like everyone else… I just wanted to serve my country. What I actually created was the soldier everyone else wanted me to be, not the soldier I was. Rumors began to spread again, and I became scared. I began to suspect I was being followed when I went to the gay bars. I lived in constant fear of being outed. I remember sitting through an equal opportunity brief one day when the topic of same-sex marriage came up. I sat and listened to some of the homophobic comments made by my fellow soldiers and thought to myself, “What happened to the Band of Brothers/Sisters?” I was grateful for a chance to deploy and leave some of that behind in Ft. Hood.

That day near Kirkuk, with the MEDEVAC chopper taking off while the blood and sweat pooled at my feet, was a pivotal moment in my life as a closeted gay soldier. It became just a little bit easier to be open and honest with others and myself, despite DADT. It was still a rough 15-month deployment. Although I had earned the trust of some in my unit, the fear of being outed was ever-present. I returned home and changed units, where I went on to deploy a second time to Iraq, and later, Afghanistan, where I still serve today as a squad leader. While I don’t flaunt my sexuality, I don’t hide it either. My soldiers and my leaders all know I’m gay.

In a positive sign of change, one of my soldiers approached me prior to this deployment, looked me in the eye and said, “It doesn’t matter that you’re gay, just be the leader we all strive to be.” That’s progress. In 2005, Steve Jobs gave the commencement address at Stanford University. His words then are my mantra now: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma–which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

I redeployed after my tour was complete and returned to Ft. Hood. During the re-deployment ceremony, the wounded soldier I had helped approached me in his wheelchair and asked if he could talk to me for a second. I agreed and we moved away from the group. He thanked me for saving his life so he could come back to his family. As he was talking, I could hear him starting to choke up and his eyes glistened. I told him that he didn’t have to say anything—I already knew what he was going to say. I told him not to worry about it and as I started to turn and walk away, he grabbed my wrist and told me to stop. I turned and saw him crying. Then he grabbed my shoulder and pulled me in for a hug that only two warriors can share. As he sobbed into my shoulder, I assured him that everything would be alright and that this wasn’t the end of the road for him. I promised to be there to help him through the things that he didn’t want his family to see. He thanked me for everything that I’d done for him. I’ll never forget the words he said to me that day. “I should’ve never doubted you because of who you are. I let my prejudices get in the way and should’ve known better.” As I then turned and walked away, I looked back to see him hugging his little girl and kissing his wife. We still check up on each other today.

This experience taught me to be proud of myself. I learned that people will surprise you with their willingness to accept you if you give them the chance. More importantly, I learned that each of us could change the life of another person with a single action. Sometimes that single action can be as simple as having the courage to be the real you.

  1. Robin Mavis
    April 4, 2012 at 9:00 AM

    Hi Nathan,
    I belong to the Military Service Business Council and the LGBT Business Council at Target. Your journal was shared with us through our company blog. I have a son who is serving in the Navy right now and so I often think about all the soldiers deployed in hostile zones, because you all are someone’s sons or daughters.
    Thank you for sharing your story. I am praying for protection for each of you over there as well as continued progress in the hearts of our nation to reject discrimination, hate, fear and bigotry of our fellow Americans.
    Peace and Light.

  2. Terry
    April 2, 2012 at 7:08 PM


    Thank you for your service, and multiple times for your deployments. We owe you guys a lot.

    Last week I met a Target team member from Killeen whose husband is serving in Afghanistan. I’ve been to Ft Hood a couple of times in my prior military life. I respect those who serve. It’s never easy. And your road has been more difficult. I have no idea of what it has been like for you. I could never carry the load that they ask you to do with armor and water and weapons.

    Keep the faith, and your head down. Come home safe. We care about you. You are our hero!

  3. Stephanie Oldham
    April 2, 2012 at 2:32 PM

    Hey Nathan!

    Todd Haldane is a close friend of my bother and our family. He shared your story with me today and I have shared it with those I know. My husband is an active Marine and my Dad a retired one. I grew up loving the military and those who chose to put their life on the line for others and our country. No matter one’s ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc. in the end we are all human and we all bleed red (as the saying goes). Your story is well told, personal, and powerful. I appreciate the fact that you opened up and let others see who you are, your soul, and not who you had once portrayed yourself to be. Thank you for your service! Stay safe!

  4. Jessica
    April 2, 2012 at 10:57 AM

    Hi Nathan,

    Thank you so much for sharing your story and for your many dedicated years of service to our country. Your journal was shared with us at Target by a friend of yours and now I want to share it with more groups. In Minnesota we’ve experienced some very unfortunate instances of teen suicide in the last few years, many of whom were gay. I think your story could inspire them and hopefully help them work through this tough patch in their lives, reminding them that there is life outside of highschool.

    I can’t thank you enough for sharing! So please stay safe and I’ll add you and your unit to my family’s nightly prayers.


  5. Chad Eldred
    March 30, 2012 at 4:45 PM

    Thank you for sharing your story!

    It not only helped put things in perspective in my own life, but was a powerful demonstration of just how important it can be to be out to our friends, family, colleagues and fellow soldiers. Thank for you for the sacrifice you’ve already made and for the work you will continue to do going forward. Continued thoughts and prayers to you and your fellow soldiers.

  6. Nathan
    March 30, 2012 at 3:52 PM

    Thank you Tracy. You are more than welcome. I love doing what I do because of people like you who I know are behind the Soldiers! Without your support, we wouldn’t make it here. You guys, family first above all else, are our backbone over here and give us a reason to fight and wake up the next morning to fight again in order to get back to you guys.

    I can’t tell you how many letters that I have received over here from kids handprints on a piece of construction paper (which brings tears to my eyes btw) to WWII and Vietnam Vets who have served. I greatly appreciate the thoughts, prayers and support that you supply to each and every service member regardless of branch or sexual orientation. You guys mean the world to us over here and I know that I can speak for all of us when I say THANK YOU!!!

    We look forward to the day that the last Soldier gets off the plane for our final plane ride home! I know I am looking forward to coming home for a couple weeks for a little R/R before heading back. I should be back stateside in a couple weeks!!!

    But again, THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart! You guys are the reason I still fight today!

  7. tracy
    March 30, 2012 at 2:32 PM

    Thank you for your service and for your tremendous leadership under curicumstances few can even imagine. You are an inspiration to me to continue to be an authentic leader. Yur journal was shared by a friend of yours who works at Target HQ in Minneapolis. i am a part of the LGBTA business council and was lucky enough to receive your link.

    Stay safe, and again, thank you.


Leave a reply



Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *