You might ordinarily expect to see a piece such as this during PRIDE month. Please know Give an Hour is committed to supporting diversity among its clients, staff, board members, collaborators and partners any time of the year. This is a story about one of our own.
Lt. Col. Ross Whitmore (U.S. Air Force ret) had a career he loved. He held a high-profile position as Commander in the medical clinic with Air Force Special Operations headquarters where he was responsible for 160 personnel and charged with running the operations of multiple clinics.
But he had a secret. Ross is a gay man who lived in fear every single day that he would be found out. If he wanted to maintain his career with the military, he had to keep quiet (courtesy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy passed in 1993). He was unable to be his true and authentic self in uniform.
Ross grew up in a conservative Mormon household in Salt Lake City, Utah. He never wanted to be gay. As a matter of fact, he said he wanted to be anything but gay. He married and had two daughters. As the years passed, the duality of the life he was living became too much to bear. The constant lies he had to tell to remain in the military went against his character as a man and against the character of an active-duty officer.
He recalled the numerous times he contemplated slamming his car into a cement blockade when it all just became too much. So, in 2001 (just before 9/11), Ross did the scariest thing he’s ever had to do – he came out to his wife and daughters. He wanted his daughters to grow up knowing the truth.
“It was a matter of survival,” he said. “I had to come out or I’d be dead.”
Part of a Movement
Ross was stationed in Washington, D.C., at the time and began working behind the scenes to repeal don’t ask, don’t tell. All the while being very careful to protect his identity, which was paramount. Ross told his story in an anonymous letter that was shared with members of Congress and he worked on funding projects for the movement.
Don’t ask, don’t tell was repealed in 2010 and effective Sept. 20, 2011. Within one week’s time Ross found himself on the cover of two gay publications and the first openly gay commander in the Air Force.
This was the beginning of the end of his military career.
Ross met with his immediate supervisor because he felt obligated to inform the general of his status since it had become public knowledge. The response? “As a Christian, I’ve learned to hate the sin and not the sinner.” The two never spoke of it again.
According to Ross, a positive, and somewhat unique, aspect to the military is that once a policy changes everyone will receive formal training to learn what is acceptable behavior regarding a protected class. And if your opinion differs, he says it’s probably best to keep it to yourself. However, just like in the civilian world, there are those in the military who still will find a way to discriminate, albeit quietly, whether it’s through performance appraisals or stifling opportunities for advancement.
He Never Saw It Coming
Unfortunately, Ross knows this all too well. In his next and last position with the Air Force, he attended an official function on base and was sexually assaulted by an enlisted member.
According to Ross, the Air Force was completely ill-equipped to deal with the situation, which resulted in his career being torpedoed. It was a public relations nightmare waiting to happen if the press learned of a commander being assaulted by an enlisted personnel.
His boss vilified him and made it impossible for him to be promoted. Ross went through every possible formal avenue he could to plead his case. He was interviewed by the Office of Special Investigations. He was assigned a special attorney for sexual assault cases and he went to the office of Military Equal Opportunity.
There was one conversation in particular that occurred, however, which let Ross know his attempts were futile. He met with a military legal officer who brushed off the assault as “locker room grab-ass.”
Ross questioned him, “If your wife had been touched that way, would we be having this same conversation?” To which the officer replied, “We’re going to take gender out of this.”
It was at that moment Ross knew the Air Force had abandoned him. He’d spent the last 15 years devoted to the mission and his military career was over. He retired from the Air Force in 2016.
Sexual Assault and PTSD
When Ross was assaulted, he was a high-functioning, senior ranking officer in a command position at a headquarters base. He was in his 40s and a seasoned mental health professional. He was completely devastated and crippled by what happened to him and experiences loss of executive functioning skills and short-term memory. Two different stays in an in-patient psychiatric facility and a 30-day stay in a residential post-traumatic stress disorder program, Ross continues to suffer from significant PTSD today. He claims the Department of Defense handles sexual assault cases horribly and inappropriately. Ross said if someone in his position could be this traumatized, it’s not realistic to expect young, enlisted members who go through similar experiences to return to duty with no problems.
There is hope, though. Ross said military mental health clinics are a great resource for the LGBTQ+ community and provides a safe space for these military members to address their concerns. There is also a program with civilian mental health professionals who can talk with active-duty members off base and it’s completely confidential. No need to even go through the mental health clinic. The only time there is a requirement to submit a report is if the active-duty member is suicidal. The same holds true for Give an Hour. Active-duty military, veterans and even family members can seek counseling with a licensed mental health provider that is completely confidential and free of charge.
Depending on the level of help one might need, Ross also suggests resources such as the National Suicide Hotline and LGBTQ+ organizations in your local area. Also, finding your tribe – those that are supportive and affirming – is just as important. In his case, Ross found a support group of gay married men who became his lifeline to navigating what was to come. His wife passed away 13 years ago and he became a single dad when his daughters were 14 and 15 years old. He’s happy to say he is very close with his daughters today and they have a great relationship.
He also says there’s a certain level of risk being a member of the LGBTQ+ community and you have to decide for yourself what amount of risk you are willing to take to be your authentic self. “Trauma Is indiscriminate,” said Ross. “It doesn’t matter how old you are, how much money you make, your age or ethnicity.
Everyone has a different journey and there is no roadmap. Ross is looking forward to the next steps in his personal journey. His experience affected him to such a degree both personally and professionally that, after several years of treatment and working to regain some sense of normalcy in his life, he plans to pursue advocacy work in the LGBTQ+ arena.
“Despite all the negatives, whether it’s legislation, church organizations or families that aren’t supportive,” said Ross. “It’s imperative to advocate for yourself and find the resources to help you navigate your path. Because we know what happens when you don’t.”