Jerre L. Brown
U.S. ARMY, ARMY RESERVE AND ARMY NATIONAL GUARD, 25 YEARS OF SERVICE
JERRE, ON SEXUAL HARASSMENT AND ASSAULT, AND HOW SHE MADE IT AS A WOMAN IN THE MILITARY:
I’m from a small town in western Oklahoma. My only experience with the military prior to joining is that I was married to an Army Aviator during Vietnam. After we got divorced I decided I was going to join the Army as a way to go to college. That was my motivation- to go to school under the GI bill. So at the time I did not realize I was a lesbian at all. My first lesbian encounter was at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. This woman was extremely masculine and scared me to death. I ran to my room and thought that’s what a lesbian looks like! Because I didn’t know, I had come from a very staunch Baptist upbringing, very religious. If I had ever seen a gay person when I was young, I wasn’t really sure, I didn’t really know what they were. So my first encounter with a woman was in Germany when I was 20 or 21 I guess. So I played with men and women for a long time, but I think I finally came to peace with my sexuality when I was in my late 20s. I haven’t been with a man since I was in my late 20s. I’m 62 now, so that’s a long time. That’s kind of how I came to know women. As far as the Army goes, it’s a way to get out of small town U.S., see the world, which I did, and be exposed the cultures and different people around the world. And obviously, that’s where I met my first woman. So it was all good!
When I joined the Army in 1973, if a woman were to become pregnant, she would be discharged. I was the first woman Intelligence Analyst in all of the European theater. All women could do back then was type. You could be a secretary, that was really it. It was very different then. If there were any lesbians or gays growing up, I never knew about it. The first time I ever went to a gay bar was in Dallas Texas in 1976. I just didn’t know about it. Back in those days you thought you were the only one. Those feelings are very hard to come to terms with.
The very first time a woman kissed me it was like, ‘this is not supposed to feel like this.’ It was not normal, my normal. It was very hard, I was very surprised more than anything. And then surprised about the feelings that I had. It was terrible.
In Germany we lived in a dorm that had 19 women. I knew Carol and I were the only lesbians in the building. But I could be wrong about that because you simply did not talk about it, other than with each other. It’s just not something that you did. To make it worse, I had top-secret compartmentalized clearance and I couldn’t work if I did anything wrong that would cause me to lose access to my security clearance. So you really had to be very secretive about everything that you did. In retrospect when I look back on these years, I’m sure people knew but I was not smart enough to realize they knew because you just did not talk about it. Not until many years later could you speak openly, and that was when I met Tansy back in 1988/ ‘89. You just kept to yourself. We didn’t have ipads and cell phones and mechanisms to learn about and explore. So it was very different. And in the military, not only would you get thrown out, but you lived in fear that you could end up in Fort Leavenworth, which is the military prison. You could be dishonorably discharged and end up in prison.
I was of the last group of women to go through a completely separate service known as the Women’s Army Core. This was called WAC, it no longer exists, they integrated women in what, 1976, I think. When I joined the military we had makeup classes in boot camp. We had to wear skirts that we starched with enough starch they would stand up by themselves. Literally by themselves. When I went to basic training I was the Goldie Hawn that showed up with my wig. I had long hair and I had my wig box and my big suitcases and I was like why are you being mean to me? This is awful. We weren’t allowed to be with guys at all, it was all segregated. They had consertina wire around what they called the WAC Shack to keep the men away.
That was a different time. I guess if I could tell you two things about my experience in the Army, because it spanned two and a half decades, it would be that women grew tremendously in terms of doing whatever it is they wanted to do and second, about being gay- I don’t think that my being a lesbian has in any way hurt me, but I was not out you see, I didn’t have the opportunity. So had I been out when I was still on active duty, I never would have been able to achieve the things that I did in terms of being the State first female Sergeant Major. And I did stop my career early. I had had aspirations to go on to become the National Guard Bureau Sergeant Major, where instead of having 3,600 troops I would have had 365,000 troops. But the mere fact of my lifestyle, I couldn’t allow myself to dream that dream because I knew it would never be a reality; they would have been in my business. And at that time I would have been a disgrace to my uniform if I had been found out as a lesbian.
I don’t know about any other profession. But think about the profession of Arms. We have to have a level of trust in the military, And I say we because there will always be a place in my heart for something I spent most of my life doing, which is serving our country, but if you think about the level of trust that we have to have, because we literally trust each other with our lives, it’s not like any civilian you will ever meet. We literally have to be able to die for each other. And that is a big commitment. Therein lies the issue: prejudice is alive and don’t think for a minute it’s not out there. A person could spend 17 years of their lives serving ones country, someone realizes that they are gay or lesbian and find reasons to not allow them to complete 20 years service. And that has happened and it will continue to happen.
I think of years ago when I was stationed at the pentagon. One of the women I was working for was a Russian Linguist. She was a nasty looking woman, she looked like Bette Davis, long hair. The first thing she told me was lower your skirt and cut your hair. She used to read the Moscow Times every morning. I knew she was a lesbian. We used to have these phones that were called scramble phones, they were secure phones, big old huge phones. And she used to call her girlfriend every morning, that phone was back by my desk, in the back of the office. And I know everyday she called her girlfriend. They’d speak everyday. And she could never tell anyone, nor could I, but I knew everyday when she was smiling on the phone when she would make that call. I wonder how different things would have been, because I had so much respect for her. She was a linguist and she knew more about Russia than most people would ever know. Because that’s what we did, learn about other people, other countries. What a joy that would have been, to share that with her. But I don’t know if we ever will.
And I was subjected to tremendous sexual harassment with the guys. I think it’s because I made it a point to never look gassy, whatever that means. In order to get along and survive I would listen to horrible jokes that straight men would make about straight women while thinking that they were talking to a straight woman when in fact they were not. So I got to be privy to that whole ugly underbelly of our leadership and what they really thought of women in general. Much less what they thought of lesbian women. I had to listen to that for so many years and just never say a word. Say if one of the generals or colonels thought a woman was a lesbian or a guy was gay, the way they would talk about it was not pretty.
It was constant. I spent my whole life in living in turmoil and feeling like I was living a lie. Which I was, as far as my sexuality was concerned. A complete lie. You could just never have people in your home, straight people, because you could never allow anyone to penetrate that wall, that shield that we built around ourselves just to survive. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody, to be gay or lesbian in the military in the time that I grew up in the military. You constantly felt guilty. Instead of feeling proud that I was a lesbian, I always felt badly that I was a lesbian…well, not badly. Just hiding. Constantly. Never able to be proud of who I am. Never. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone at all. When people say it’s by choice that we’re lesbians, I think no, it’s not because it’s much easier to grow up straight and remain straight your entire life. And because I’ve lived in both worlds I can say that- it is much easier.
No women will ever tell you that they served without being harassed. Probably 90% of all women who have ever served have been sexually assaulted at least once. And I say that because I certainly was, that was many years ago. Not by a woman, but by a man. I think that for a woman to even be able to survive a career in the military- regardless of her sexuality is even a miracle- I think they’re tough to even have done that.
I was young, I think I was 21 at the time. And it was my supervisor in Germany when I was stationed there. I don’t know how you move on. You don’t. I can still see his face. I have nothing but disgust and disdain for him as a man, as a human being. I am not sure how you get through, but you do. And I think that the only way that women in my generation can is to dig in and say you’re not going to run me off, there is nothing you can do or say to me that’s going to make me leave. You work twice as hard as anybody, everybody else. I used to put in 80-100 hours a week, every week. Because I was going to make sure that I was as good as them, that I was seen as good as them. And I am sure that every woman tells you who has served for any length of time in the military that maybe they haven’t been assaulted but certainly they have been harassed. And that’s a tragedy but its true. When I go to the VA because I get benefits, the first question they ask you today is have you been a victim of sexual trauma? Sometimes I tell them, sometimes I don’t. The doctor asked me last month, she said you’re just so matter of fact and I’m like- what can I do about it? Acknowledge that it happened and move on because what else are you going to do?
I mean I can go crazy about it for the rest of my life but I won’t give him the satisfaction of that, you see. It wouldn’t have been any different if it were…well, if it were a woman, it probably would have been more sick to be assaulted by one of us as opposed to by a man. I think that would have been a bigger violation. Because men- it’s not right to say, but they don’t know any better. When you think about a man and a woman, I think it would be worse to be assaulted by a woman than by a man.
I don’t know if it was expected or would have ever occurred to me in those days to report that to anyone, to seek retribution, to seek legal- that would never have occurred to me, ever. And even today in the military- if you think of the whole sexual trauma – of women in the military, and it’s not just women, it’s men too, I’ve actually run into men in the veterans hospital to seek therapy that were raped by men, not women- but I think that back then, yes. I think that back then certainly you would never- because who would listen? Who would hear you? And they wouldn’t have, I know they wouldn’t have. I’m certain. I like to think that when I was in leadership, I would like to think with all my heart that nothing like that happened. Because I would have strung somebody up if I ever thought they’d hurt a female soldier, or any soldier. But I would like to think that the climate…hopefully the climate… is different now.
People are more open now because they got in so much trouble over the fact that nobody ever gets prosecuted for sexual assault. If you have thousands of rapes and if you’re lucky you get less than a 1% conviction rate that even goes to court marshal. And then do you want to go through the horror of filing charges… And 40 years ago, no, I did not want to go through that horror because no one would have listened to me anyway. Today they might listen but they wouldn’t have then.
Regardless of who you are, no means no. I’ll tell you a quick story. I have lots of stories. Years ago I went to a school called Battle Schools- it was to learn about how to be an infantry person and I was on a 12-person team. And I say person because I was the only woman. It was 11 guys that were all infantrymen. I was a lot younger. And that was when they nicknamed me Molly Brown for the unsinkable Molly Brown- I thought that they’d kill me in the time I was there, but I said to myself, I’m not gonna quit, I’m not gonna quit, I will not give up. Two experiences happened there. One was unsafe practices on the range where they were throwing white phosphorous grenades at us. When that blows up in your face, it can really mess you up and hurt you. And these were just young men out of control, John Wayne kind of guys. So I reported that as unsafe range practices. And the other thing I reported was this young man that was on the cadre, a staff of trainers, he was a young guy that was hitting on me and making very unwanted advances, so I reported him as well. I got a call saying that they investigated the range charge, not the guy, but the range- they closed the school down for three weeks as a result of the complaint I had filed. They did nothing to that young man that had harassed me. Nothing, right under the carpet. That’s why I say it was a different time. It was more important to them that you had unsafe range practices than you had a guy that happened to be making unwanted sexual advances towards the only woman in their school. And when I grew up in most situations I was the only woman in a leadership position.
In a leadership role I had subordinates, tons of people who worked for me. When you live your whole life hiding, they never really knew Jerre, the person beyond the Sergeant Major. The person, what’s important to her outside of and away from the uniform. I never was able to reveal that to them, ever, and again that is something that is a tremendous loss. For me, we couldn’t have children. That’s not true today. They let people be on active duty today with kids. But when I was young if you got pregnant you were discharged. There were just so many things that were different. So you never really saw the family unit that you see today, that didn’t exist. But I served during the cold war- think about it, Vietnam was still on, Russia was not our friend, they were still the USSR. I remember when I was at the pentagon when we briefed the fall of Saigon. It was a completely different time and there are some sad things. But there are some friendships, too. The friendships Tansy and I have, we will be friends until the day that we die, for always. Forever friends. But I can count those close military comrades on two hands.
When I say I had to work hard as a woman, I mean I had to work hard. I served in nine different branches of the military in that 25 years and there were quite a lot of physical things that I was able to do then to just be able to compete with the guys. I will tell you that there are men today that deeply resent the fact that I was in charge of them. Deeply. I think the inference was that I got to where I was because I slept with the superior officers. Which was true but unbeknownst to them it wasn’t with the male superior officers, it was the females. But they didn’t know that. So it was pretty funny. But I don’t know what else to tell you except it just became part of my life when I decided I was going to finish my career in the military, I would say when I get to be queen for a day watch out! I will change how we do things. But I’ll tell you the thing about leadership too is that when you finally do make it to the top, you are only as strong as your weakest link. Your power is not within yourself, the power is to inspire people to do what you want them to do and make them think that it was their idea. That’s the true source of power and leadership in my estimation, to get people to believe in you enough to own what it is that I’m trying to get you to do. And I hope that I had the ability to inspire people enough to do those kinds of things. If I did nothing else I hope I did those things- to get people to respect each other, to be good to each other.
No matter what organization, what you do in life, your people are your best asset, without them you have nothing. You can have the best weapons in the world, you can have the best training in the world but you have to know that when I look at you, I would die for you, and you for me. And I was always of the opinion that as a leader you have to lead by example. One of my favorite stories to tell people is about the first time I had to repel off the side of a mountain. I‘m morbidly scared of heights, terrified. At that time I was a Platoon Sergeant and had about 45 or 50 people that worked for me and these Special Forces guys were teaching us how to go down the side of a mountain. And when you repel, you don’t repel facing the mountain, you repel looking straight out over the mountain. I’m just about to wet my pants I’m so scared. And my soldiers are looking at me, you are going to go first, aren’t you? And I’m like- you bet I am. Come with me, I’ll lead the way. And I did and I thought I would die I was so afraid but I never let them know because they would be afraid too. And I mean that sincerely. I’ve been in some pretty scary situations but when I jump off the side of a mountain face first, I’m thinking, oh my god am I going to fall? But more than that, I’m thinking there’s 45 kids that won’t come off the side of this mountain if I don’t go first.
I made sure the mission got done. But even my piers in the military called me the wide-eyed liberal. I’m the social worker, that’s what my backgrounds in, my degree, so obviously I have a different focus than some. And that doesn’t make it right or wrong, it’s just who I am, it’s just who I am. I think you can get the mission done, absolutely. I don’t know if women care more deeply or if we demonstrate it differently that men do, but most men really don’t care if your head hurts, if you’re having menstrual cramps, if your wife left you, if your child’s sick. They just care about the mission, but you’ll never get to the mission if you don’t care about the people. So I would hope that women lead in a different way. If people believe that you care about them, they’re more likely to do it for you, they’re more likely to go the extra mile, to stay that extra five minuets to do whatever they need to, to get the job done. That’s served me well throughout my lifetime.
I never actually got to deploy to a war zone. Instead of going to Vietnam they sent me to Germany, in the Guard we serve as units, not as individuals. So if our unit doesn’t deploy we don’t get to deploy. The closest I came to that is military school for 6 months, the last school was over 6 months in duration. We’re all separated from our families and all these men don’t realize you’re a lesbian. Even when I was in the major’s academy, I had guys that wanted to go out with me and I was like no I don’t think so. I don’t think so! So it’s true, we spent most of our time alone with ourselves and with our thoughts more than anything. And even for me, I never came out to my mother. And my father died when I was much younger. My sister knows, we’re only a year apart in age. I told my sister when I was in my 20s but I still have straight friends that I never told. It’s like you live in this world that’s not real. They don’t realize that you’re still the same person that you were. It has nothing to do with who you are as an individual or the kind of person that you are. If they knew you, they would love you. When you’re young and you think about being a lesbian, hormones are alive and well, and then when you age…I’ve been with my partner for 29 years in June, and heaven knows when I was younger, I’ve been around the block a time or two- but it’s funny to me that as you age, we have the same problems as anybody else does, and as you age and you end up with the health issues that you didn’t have when you were young and you have all those other issues, the truth is it’s no different than straight soldiers or civilians. But people are so ignorant that they don’t know the difference. And it makes me very sad. I think that what’s wrong is that when people view sexuality, they think of it literally instead of figuratively –they think of sex- but who you trust your heart with is something different. Sex, to me, and who you love are two entirely different things.
When I got appointed to Sergeant Major many years ago, my partner was on the stage, but not as my partner, as my commander. I gave a beautiful speech that day. And then when I retired, she did come to my retirement ceremony and I did acknowledge her as being a special person there but again I didn’t acknowledge her as my partner. They probably all knew, but I didn’t acknowledge it. But she was certainly there. How sad. I would never have been able to achieve the things I was able to do without her.
No one gets to the top without somebody in their corner that helps push them along, when you come home and have had a terrible day or you have the whole weight of the Rocky Mountains on your shoulders- ‘Did I make the right decision, did I do the right thing’ –nobody gets to where they are without someone else. We all need someone to love, it just so happens we love women.
We did retire. I am a retiree, my partner is retired. We are not married because we can’t legally marry in our state. Between us we both have over 50 years of service to our nation, and if one of us died tomorrow, and one of us will precede the other in death, we cannot draw each other’s pensions, we have no rights whatsoever. None, for our social security, for our military pensions, nothing. That’s the difference between being a lesbian or a gay couple and a straight couple. If you think of any straight couple in the military, what you work for is to be able to draw that pension, lifelong benefits: medical, dental, health, as well as a monthly check. So I get my check and she gets her check, but if one of us dies the other has no right to the other’s pension. So there is still much, much inequality.
Tansy on the other hand, since they changed the law, she can get married, not in Colorado, but she can get married. And that’s a great thing. So can I. But it will serve no purpose for benefits, for pensions, for things you look at when you’re older in your life. A big difference, I think.
I was an actress for 25 years. And I was so relived when I retired- and my partner retired early so that I could go on, she left service, she could served a number of more years, but she decided to retire so that they wouldn’t court marshal her because of us. Because she was an officer. Just the potential of that… So she retired early so that I could go on and fulfill my dream of being in charge of this Army Guard here in Colorado. These were big sacrifices that most people should never have to think about making.
Even in the military as it is today, most people think my partner’s name is Chuck. It’s very sad. And you never show pictures on your iphone or ipad. The only pictures I show are of our dogs.
I think it really, really has an impact, a psychological impact, an emotional impact, all those things. Because the truth is, when people look at me, they don’t know who I am. They know who they see and who I want them to see. But they don’t know- a few years ago my partner had a very serious surgery, an extremely serious life threatening surgery and it was only then that I came out to one of my supervisors in what I do today – I finally looked at him and said I have to go now. I have to go to the hospital right now and this is why, fire me if you want but I have to go now. And he didn’t. It turns out his brother is a gay Episcopal Priest. I was like, yes! But it took a near death experience on the part of my partner for me to get up the courage to even be able to tell my manager that I’m a lesbian. That’s how far in the closet I am. Because the fear of going to prison- can you even imagine if someone said you’re going to prison. We are going to lock you up and take away every right that you have and you may be here for a long time- simply because of who you love? Can you imagine that? That’s how we grew up in the military.
Matters of the heart, you know, matters of the heart. And in war, nobody wins. Everyone loses because there’s worse things than dying. And living with the horror that young men and women go through everyday in Afghanistan today and Iraq before that and it goes on and on and on. Every war we’ve ever had…there’s very big casualties, casualties I think that perhaps the lesbian and gay communities suffer much more so. Those are hidden tragedies because in many cases, well, we’ve never been able to publically acknowledge our love for each other therefore, heaven forbid something were to happen to your partner, you are not even able to grieve in the same way that heterosexuals would. Maybe so today, I should hope.
One thing you should be able to pick up on is the great love of our country, of service. I think we all consider it a privilege to have served. No one can take that away and that is a sense of pride I think that every veteran feels that has worn the uniform. We’re still those people that when they play the national anthem there are tears in our eyes and the hair on the back of or neck will stand up when we see our colors, our flag passes- and that will always be.
I have a dream, it’s a bad dream. Maybe I shouldn’t tell it, but I will because it actually happened. It’s a reoccurring dream, probably known as PTSD. Years ago there was a terrible accident over 40 years ago now where 21 of my soldiers where burned…severely burned. A field range exploded in their faces. One eventually died and many of them have permanent scars, hands, arms, they have the word Joe Sgros forever. Like I said, one of them eventually passed away. I have those dreams. And it’s funny because those dreams are worse now than when I was younger and it happened. Now I know why dreams manifest. Traumatic events manifest themselves in dreams and sometimes it takes many, many years for that to happen. And certainly that’s the case with this where this happened in 1982 and it’s 2014. Why is it still happening now? Where I can still see in my face- we call them mess-cooks- he was the chief cook who had prepared all this food and it wasn’t his fault that the….it was just a tragic, tragic accident. And I can still see his face because his glasses were burned into his face, plastic was melting into his face and he was crying and I was holding him saying Its’ gonna be okay Jene, it’s gonna be okay. Don’t try to pull those glasses off. He would have pulled his face off. The plastic was melted into his face. I have dreams. And that’s certainly one of them. I am sure I have good dreams too, but…
I share that only because I never really thought I knew what it was like for people to have dreams that come back and haunt them years later. And I never acknowledged that for years. But it’s there. And I can see every one of their faces. Every single one of them. It was just a surreal experience. If you can imagine 21 people, in some cases burned beyond recognition. And then following them over to the Army hospital, with the whole debris. All the things that go on with burn injury, it’s an awful, awful way to be injured. The smell will never leave me…the smell of burning skin is just terrible.
I had strange dreams after my father died. For months and months and months and months I had the same dream: we were at a restaurant and he was sitting on a swivel chair and I’d come up behind him and say ‘that’s dad!’ and then I’d say ‘don’t cha know me dad?’ He’d turn around and I’d see his face and he didn’t know me. I‘m sure that all has to do with loss and how you think through these things. It’s like why don’t you know me? I think about my mother, how stupid was I? I was cleaning her room out after her death and I found all these letters. I never came out to my mom, but I knew that she knew. And I found all these letters saying that she knew about my partner, she loved my partner. But she never told me. I didn’t tell her and she didn’t acknowledge it and that was okay with everyone. We kept it there. But it wasn’t until after her death that I realized that she knew all along. And she just, we just didn’t talk about it. But I think all women should have the courage to be who you are, to shout it from the mountaintops. Don’t be in prison like I have all my life. It’s not a good way to live.