by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
Hal Faulkner, a Gay man whose last wish came true earlier this month when his discharge from the U.S. Marines was changed from 'undesirable' to 'honorable,' died Tuesday in Florida.
Just 11 days after receiving his wish, Faulkner succumbed following a battle with cancer. His story, however, will live on undoubtedly as one of the most poignant examples of the toll that laws like 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' have had on the Gay community.
Hal Faulkner joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1953. He started as a private first class and, within the span of three years, went on to become a corporal and a sergeant, eventually getting assigned to a base in the Philippines.
But then something went wrong. In 1956, when he was 22, Faulkner was discharged from the Marines after more than three years of proud service.
His record was clean. There were no real blots of any kind. No complaints of incompetence or laziness or insubordination. There was, however, this: A man Hal had spent some off-duty time with informed his commanding officer that Faulkner was Gay.
The commanding officer determined that Faulkner had to go. The discharge was classified as 'other than honorable' and the officer wrote 'homosexual' on the papers.
'It wrecked me,' Faulkner told the New York Times as tears streamed down his cheeks. 'They gave up on me,' he said, referring to the Marines.
Half a century later, Faulkner, 79-year-old at the time of the Times interview, said the early discharge had always stayed with him like a tight, stubborn knot of sadness and anger. In particular, those three words - 'other than honorable.' He wanted more than anything to have them removed from his record.
As the New York Times put it, 'That became his dying wish: that those words not outlive him.'
More than 110,000 Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual people were discharged from the United States military over time because of their sexual orientation prior to federal law being changed. 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' vaguely softened the prohibition against Gays in the armed services, but throughout the '90s and 10 years into the next century, it was common for discharges to be classified as 'other than honorable,' which sometimes barred Gay veterans from receiving any benefits, and, in some cases, disqualified them from civilian jobs they later sought.
Now that the military accepts Gays, there is also a process that permits those who were dishonorably discharged to appeal for reclassifications of those dismissals as honorable. Currently, there is no data available on how many veterans have sought to take advantage of this or with what success.
When Faulkner caught wind of it, he knew that he had to try. He contacted OutServe-SLDN, an advocacy group for Gay service members, to rally support for his cause.
Unfortunately, Faulkner's discharge from the Marines based on his sexual orientation wouldn't be the last time his being Gay lost him a job. In the late 1950s, after a sales job with a company that sold heavy construction and road-making equipment, Faulkner joined a firm that made tools and technology for guarding against environmental degradation only to lose the job, once again, to being Gay. Faulkner saw no choice but to return to the closet and tell no one about his sexual orientation.
Had he been more open about being Gay, he told the New York Times, 'I wouldn't be here today. I'd probably be on the street.'
It wasn't until 2005 that he finally brought Charles, his longtime partner and 'the love of my life,' to a big family gathering. A few years later, Charles died, and Faulkner lived alone with round-the-clock help from a home health care attendant
One year ago, he received a diagnosis of cancer in his lungs, liver and adrenal glands. Faulkner was given about six months to live.
Anne Brooksher-Yen, the New York lawyer who took on his discharge appeal, says she was racing the clock. She received Faulkner's request just three months ago, when doctors were saying that he might only have weeks to live. She pressed the military for an expedited decision.
Finally, in mid-December, she received a letter saying that the military would change the verbiage of his discharge.
Three weeks ago, a gathering was held in Fort Lauderdale where the letter was presented to Faulkner.
John Gillespie, a member of OutServe-SLDN's board of directors, traveled there, too, from Mississippi, and arranged for two local Marines, in uniform, to be on hand to congratulate Faulkner, who'd been told what the letter said.
'He lived his entire adult life with this shame and this stain on his honor,' Gillespie said. 'The world has changed so much that with the stroke of a pen, that stain and that shame are gone.'
At the Friday gathering, in a penthouse apartment a few floors above his own, Faulkner was given a red Marine cap and received a copy of the letter, which included its assurance that his military record would 'be corrected to show that he received an honorable discharge.'
Those who were present say Faulkner was visibly fighting back tears. 'I don't have much longer to live,' he said, 'but I shall always remember it.'
Finally, he gave in and began to sob. 'It's often said that a man doesn't cry,' he said. 'I am a Marine and I am a man. So please forgive me.'
The old man's dying wish had been granted.
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