A Marine’s Own Story

What it was like serving during 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

Erica Leigh Gabor being honored with a Marine Corps Achievement Medal (photos courtesy of Gabor)

In many ways, her story begins in the military recruiting office and ends with a made-for-TV movie. Well, not “ends” exactly, but begins again as this former Marine navigates life after a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) discharge, welcoming the repeal next week, living with a brain injury and coming to terms with many of the complex issues facing veterans returning from war.

Erica Leigh Gabor, 30, grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, the product of 12 years of Catholic school. She had a great job as a computer networker in Center City – until Sept. 11th happened. “I quit my job,” says Gabor, “and I joined the Marine Corps.”

Gabor, who admits she was always timid – if not downright shy – never discussed the decision with her family or friends. She simply walked into the Marine recruitment office downtown and signed her name. It would be an enormous decision, especially if you consider that for every 90 male Marines, there’s one woman. And before long, she was one of them.

“I needed to prove myself. I wanted to go make a difference,” says Gabor, who enlisted for six months of boot camp before heading to Iraq.

For a young, openly lesbian woman, the decision to leave the tony corporate world to rigorously train for war during a time when all branches of the military observed the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, might be puzzling. But not for Gabor – then just 22 – who can still remember being 11 years old and seeing the first image of a Marine on a daytime TV show. She may not have come from a military family (in fact, she is the first in her family to serve) but she never forgot that image. It would be something that reoccurred to her often as she, and the country, coped with the days following 9/11.

And during her three years of active duty, Gabor rose to each challenge, working as a motor vehicle operator – one of the most dangerous jobs for anyone in wartime – transporting cargo from base to base outside the wire nightly. Her secondary job was mail chief where she delivered letters and care packages to 11,000 fellow service men and women. “Being overseas and serving in Iraq, you have your brother and sister Marines but you don’t have the contact with your family and loved ones on a daily basis,” she says. “When you get a piece mail or care package it lifts your spirits.”

Gabor, today, at home with her Boston Terrier Gus

Gabor even earned a Marine Corps Medal of Achievement for going “above and beyond” the call of duty. “I would take pictures and write articles,” she says, about fellow Marines – what they did every day and how they were doing – for a website she created that could be accessed by their family members back at home – the first project of its kind in any branch of the military. “It had a domino effect,” she admits, as each company and battalion within the camp also established their own sites for military families.

Within just a year and a half of enlisting, Gabor was named corporal – unheard of by most accounts, especially for a woman. But by all accounts, she was a top-tier Marine rising steadily in the ranks. She looked forward to a long career.

But everything would change when she suffered a traumatic brain injury, and discharged for, of all things, being gay.

“I walked into the recruiting office and signed that dotted line knowing the consequences, knowing what I could possibly be dealt,” she admits. “But it wasn’t an issue. It didn’t even occur to me that I could really be kicked out for who I am. I knew I would be able to keep my person separate from my career as a Marine. And while I served, it was never an issue. I was an above-average Marine.”

Gabor says several people in her company knew she was a lesbian. “But I did my job and served our country,” she says. “It was never an issue. I can fire my rifle just as good as the next guy.” And in battle, she says, no one ever stops to think, ‘Is she hitting on me?’ It’s a ridiculous notion.

But what’s worse, perhaps, was the inability for so many LGBT men and women serving in the military to continue to serve based on who they love.

“I was never given a chance to admit or deny that I was gay,” says Gabor, who now runs her own photography business in Philadelphia. “But if it came down to that – and a lot of individuals would disagree with me – I would deny that I’m gay. I struggle every day with not being a Marine. It was my passion.”

This is what makes the DADT repeal so important to Gabor and other service members like her.

“It should be a non-issue,” she says. And now that DADT has been repealed (officially on Sept. 20), she says sexual orientation should still be a non-issue. Gabor discussed her experiences being among the few, the proud and the women in an upcoming documentary called Women of War, made by the same producers from Sundance who also chronicled male veterans returning from active duty in Who Will Stand.

Check out the Women of War trailer here (the story continues after the jump):

Post-traumatic stress and adapting to her injuries, as well as accepting that she will never again be able to reenlist, is something Gabor lives with every day – and not always with the ease many of us might expect. She admits this has been the first year she’s had “more good days than bad,” but nearly life-threatening circumstances have had her questioning her own future many times, not to mention how young, female veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are treated by the VA system inundated with so many older, sometimes drug-addicted men from Vietnam and other wars.

“You go through stages,” she admits. “First you go through denial. Because the Marine Corps trains you in such a way where you are emotionless, you feel nothing.” After washing down 14 different kinds of medication, becoming angry, bitter and moving to Florida and virtually disappearing for nearly two years, Gabor started looking for a way to connect with other women who have been through the same experiences.

She began by sharing her story for the documentary and eventually signed the rights for a TV movie currently being produced with several big-name Hollywood stars in the running to depict her during and after being discharged because of DADT.

“My goal is to make a difference and make the American public realize what actually goes on in the military with gay people,” she says. “This really happened. I want people to know that I served our country honorably, but I don’t have an honorable discharge. I have all the awards and credentials – and a federal investigation that threatened to send me to jail. I want them to know what really goes on with our soldiers.”

So how did she react when the DADT repeal was announced? “Is this really happening?” she asked herself. “It’s really bittersweet. I know I was hurt in Iraq. They kicked me out under DADT. I worked my butt off and I loved putting on that uniform every day. I loved taking orders and giving them, and working so hard. If I didn’t get injured, I could walk back into that recruitment office and say, ‘Sign me up.'”

But the reality is much different. Not only does Gabor, like many returning veterans, suffer from permanent injuries (she no longer has any peripheral vision which disqualifies her from enlisting again), but she must also deal with painful, lingering survivor’s guilt. She doesn’t talk about what caused the injuries, and like most veterans, she doesn’t talk about what she saw on the battlefield, but she says, she’s getting there.

“It took me so long to realize that I couldn’t do it on my own,” says Gabor. “The word ‘can’t’ is just not in my vocabulary. But what happened makes me so angry. And my story needs to get out there.”

As the U.S. gets ready to welcome the official DADT repeal next week, Gabor created a celebration event at PYT (Sept 20 from 7 to 9 p.m.) with proceeds being donated to the Service Members Legal Defense Network.

“A lot of people asked me why I would deny being gay over being a Marine,” she says. “And I want people to know that it’s about listening to the inner you. Think about what truly defines who you are. When I do that, the Marine Corps truly defines who I am. I’m gay, but I’m also a Marine. And I can be gay in the Marine Corps regardless of whether the repeal went through or not. I love being a Marine and that’s what defines me.”

DADT Repeal Celebration, Sept. 20, PYT (7-9 p.m.), 1050 N. Hancock St., 215-964-9009 (there’s also a DADT celebration at Tabu on the same day starting at 5 p.m.). Special guest former U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy – an advocate for the repeal of DADT – will attend both events.