(Courtesy of The New York Times)
TULSA, Okla. — Master Sgt. Anthony Henry, a top Marine recruiting trainer for the southwestern United States, pulled up to Tulsa’s biggest gay community center on Tuesday morning and left his Chevy where he could make a fast getaway. “I have an exit strategy,” he said. “I know where my choke points are, I’ve strategically parked my car right on the curbside, I have an out.”
But as it happened, one of the strangest days in the history of the United States Marine Corps unfolded without the protests and insults that Sergeant Henry had feared. Sergeant Henry, who had been invited to set up a recruiting booth on the first day of the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell” at the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center in downtown Tulsa, instead spent it in quiet conversation with a trickle of gay women who came in to ask about joining the Marines.
“It’s your business and you don’t have to share it,” Sergeant Henry told Ariel Pratt, 20, who asked whether she would face discrimination in the military as a lesbian serving openly. “But you’re also free to be at the mall with your girlfriend.”
Ms. Pratt, 20, asked Sergeant Henry what he liked about the Marines.
“It’s like a little family,” he said. “We get mad at each other, we joke with each other, but we don’t let anybody else make fun of us.”
“That’s pretty cool,” she said.
The Marines were the service most opposed to ending the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, but they were the only one of five invited branches of the military to turn up with their recruiting table and chin-up bar at the center Tuesday morning.
Although Marines pride themselves on being the most testosterone-fueled of the services, they also ferociously promote their view of themselves as the best. With the law now changed, the Marines appear determined to prove that they will be better than the Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard in recruiting gay, lesbian and bisexual service members.
Still, judging by the traffic at the gay rights center on Tuesday, there will not be an immediate flood of gay and lesbian Marine applicants. By 3 p.m., more than four hours after the Marines had set up their booth opposite the center’s AIDS quilt, only three women had wandered in, none ideal recruits. The local television crews who had come to watch the action — or inaction, as it turned out — easily outnumbered them.
The first potential recruit, First Lt. Misty McConahy of the Oklahoma National Guard, asked if the Marines had openings for any behavioral health officers, her specialty in the guard. She was told no, the Marines use the Navy for medical care. (Later, Sergeant Henry said that he should have sent her to a recruiter for Marine Corps officers, given her rank.)
“It’s a lot of courage for her to come out like that,” Sergeant Henry said, after watching Lieutenant McConahy surrounded by reporters. “Her commander is probably going to see that on TV tonight.”
The second potential recruit, Ms. Pratt, the niece of a late benefactor of the gay rights center, had scars up her left arm from cutting herself in high school — an almost certain medical disqualification for the Marines. “I’ve been recruiting for a very long time,” Sergeant Henry told her, gently. “Those are very tough to deal with.” He took her name and number and said he would make some calls to see what he could do.
The third potential recruit was a 25-year-old overweight high school dropout. Sergeant Henry told her, again gently, that she should come back after she got her diploma and got in shape.
Not that getting into the Marines is easy for anyone right now. As the Marines tell it, only one in 10 applicants qualify for service, with most turned away for a variety of afflictions: asthma, attention deficit disorder, overweight (a 5-foot, 8-inch, 18-year-old male can’t weigh more than 180 pounds before boot camp), excessive tattoos, joint injuries, lack of a high school diploma and a history of drugs beyond infrequent marijuana use.
A bad economy has made jobs in the Marines all the more desirable, at a time when Marines anticipate shrinking their force — down to an undetermined number from the current 200,000 on active duty — as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down. Beyond the economy, said Sergeant Henry, a veteran of three tours in Iraq, the other motivator is the same as always: “They want to be a Marine and they want to blow stuff up.”
The Marines were at the gay rights center at the invitation of Toby Jenkins, the center’s executive director, who said he saw no better way to celebrate the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in a conservative state that strongly supports the military.
“If we’ve been fighting for 15 years for the right to be in the military, we said, ‘Let’s just ask military recruiters if they’d be available,’ ” he said. “But no one was prepared for that question. It was like I was talking to people like they were deer in the headlights.”
The Marines did in fact think that Mr. Jenkins’s invitation might be a hoax, so they checked him out and talked to their superiors, who talked to their superiors. Then they took a deep breath and decided to go. As the day wore on, the Marines said the bust in recruiting had been made up for in media exposure and public relations. Sergeant Henry and his public affairs officer, Capt. Abraham Sipe, gave interviews at the center with five local television stations, three print reporters and one correspondent for National Public Radio. In between, gay rights supporters stopped by to shake their hands.
“Toby said there were cute guys in uniform here,” said Cecilia Wessinger, 46, a longtime friend of the center, who wandered in about 2 p.m. She thanked Sergeant Henry for coming and acknowledged that she was surprised to see him. A few hours later, Kelly Kirby, 57, a retired Air Force sergeant, thanked Captain Sipe. In the 1970s, he said, his boyfriend had been discharged from the Air Force, but he himself had not been discovered, and the memory still haunted him.
“I appreciate you being here,” Mr. Kirby said.
By 5 p.m. the Marines had packed up their booth and chin-up bar and headed out, with plans to come back later to attend a panel discussion. It was all uncharted territory. As Sergeant Henry had said the day before of the new world the Marines now inhabit, “At first it’s going to be kind of shock and awe.”
But like a good Marine, he was with the program: “My take is, if they can make it through our boot camp, which is the toughest boot camp in the world, then they ought to have the opportunity to wear the uniform.”