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A place to belong: Part II

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- Tech. Sgt. Martin Rodriguez experienced a variety of bad situations while serving in the military, from deployments to hostile work environments to the threat of being discharged, but he was living a secret alternate life that could of had devastating consequences.

In fact, at the time he was putting his career at risk by violating a longstanding Department of Defense policy.

“My dad was first to know,” Rodriguez said. “It was the biggest fear of my life at the time, but he was extremely accepting; my mom said it was a phase. I’ve known since I was five years old. There was always fear of public backlash, but my parents were more concerned about what would happen to me in the military.”

Defense Directive 1304.26 and 10 U.S. Code 654 – better known as the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy – prevented service members from engaging in homosexual conduct to protect the “high standards of morale, good order and discipline.” Anyone who had engaged or admitted to a homosexual act could be involuntarily separated under military law.

“There was this fear in the back of my mind that something really bad could happen to me even though I’m devoting my life to defending my country. I didn’t let it stop me; I saw it as another obstacle,” he said.
Rodriguez explored the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender community during his first assignment at Travis AFB, California, which is close to San Francisco and Sacramento.

“The first year was a little shocking, but I was able to make good friends and I learned to spot people with bad intentions early,” he said. “I also made a decision that I would be the best I could be at my job and it paid off when I was named Airman of the Year. I wanted to prove that I could do anything.”

The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was in effect when he joined the Air Force in 2001, but was repealed in December 2010 by former President of the United States Barrack H. Obama. However, he had to wait nine years before he could serve openly as a bi-sexual Airman.

“DADT was very scary, I was a young teenager at the time and I felt like I always had to look over my shoulder,” he said. “I was afraid that if I upset somebody in the military they would turn me in and I would lose my career or that everything I was doing to be the best I could be, would be wiped clean.”

“I was losing friends; they were being put out of the military and I felt trapped,” he said. “I was the face everyone knew because of my job and volunteering, so it was good for my career but bad for my personal life. I couldn’t be me.”

His parents’ fears about his service became his reality while deployed.

“I was an [airman first class] training a group of reservists, and this one particular NCO who was much bigger than me was harassing me daily,” he said. “I didn’t have a lot of options, reporting him to the sexual assault response coordinator could expose me. I didn’t feel I had the same freedom to use the SARC like we do today.”

An intuitive female senior airman recognized the situation and intervened.

“I told her about my fears and she literally came to my rescue,” he said. “She went right up to the NCO and told him that if he didn’t stop, she would report that he was harassing her. She was strong and I was so thankful she stepped in, it was a weight off my shoulders. DADT made me feel like I didn’t have a way to defend myself.”

After the encounter, Rodriguez decided to suppress his orientation and began looking for a like-minded female partner.

He found her in Monterey, California.

“It was one of those movie style meetings. She was prior Navy and recently separated,” he said. “Further down the road we decided to give an unconventional family a try. My son was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Rodriguez would miss his son’s birth while on deployment but all was not what it seemed. Rodriguez’s partner and two week old child would vanish.

“She took my son all the way to the west coast. I eventually found them through Facebook, it was a difficult time,” he said. “I felt like fatherhood was stolen from me. Three years later the child neglect was so severe my son was still in diapers and had seven root canals. It was devastating, this beautiful child was being neglected and I could only see him once a year.”

During one of his 12 deployments, Rodriguez would find a small light in so much darkness.

“During that time I met my future husband, he was Army and he got me through the toughest times,” he said. “I was deployed every two months and when I was home I was fighting for custody of my child for about three years.”

Rodriguez would eventually win custody over his son and together begin to build a new family, but the happiness would be short lived.

“He suffered from severe PTSD, the things he had to do, you just don’t get over,” he said. “My son calls him daddy, it’s a little embarrassing, and no one gets married to get a divorce. We’re currently separated but at the time before DADT repeal we couldn’t get the help we needed.”

The Rodriguez family would endure major surgeries, extended periods of personality blackouts and even suicide attempts.

“One of these days he’s not going to pick up the phone because he committed suicide,” Rodriguez said. “He says he feels this peace come over his body, that he can hear the friends that he watched die calling out to him, to join them, to be peaceful. Pulling away from him was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

Rodriguez faced challenge after challenge in both his professional and personal lives.

“The Air Force gave me the tools I needed to survive all the issues that I’ve gone through,” he said. “I became a Master Resiliency Trainer and I used my experiences to teach others. My family values carried me to a certain point and then my Air Force values took me the rest of the way.”

Rodriguez is currently the president of the Tyndall LGBT committee.

“The major reason I wanted to start the LGBT committee is because as a young Airman there were no safe havens, no places to go, I never felt like I belonged,” Rodriguez said. “Now we have this freedom to provide that safe place, to build a stronger team and educate people about this form of diversity.”

Representatives from local LGBT support groups and Tyndall resources such as mental health, provide the fledgling committee with resources to help build a stronger community.

“A senior master sergeant came up to me and shook my hand and said, ‘Thank you, this committee is overdue and it’s time we had one,’” Rodriguez said. “That was a little overwhelming for me, I didn’t expect so much support in so little time. You don’t have to be LGBT to be in this committee, feeling alone is something that really pushes people to the edge and this committee is a tool that could bring someone back onto solid ground.”

The Tyndall LGBT committee meets every second Wednesday of the month at 1 p.m. in Building 662, Room 267.

“What matters is your heart, how you wear the uniform and the pride you show in your service.”