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When Roger Huffstetler served in the Marines, he slept next to Sgt. Terry Santiago. Huffstetler didn’t know Santiago was gay until they came home from Afghanistan.
Huffstetler also had a childhood friend named Andy Lane. He also didn’t know Lane was gay until many years later.
When he found out that both men were engaged to be married to other men, Huffstetler started wondering “could I have been a better friend to these two guys?” So he set out to make amends with Lane and Santiago.
All three men speak to Here & Now’s Robin Young.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW, and here's a headline-grabber: I slept with a gay man for six months in Afghanistan. No one asked. He did not tell. Well, that's the way a recent essay in the Washington Post begins. But what the writer meant was, he was bunking in a small tent on the other side of a plywood partition in combat in Afghanistan with someone he did not know was gay because no one talked about it.
Former Marine Roger Dean Huffstetler wrote that article. He was talking about his friend, Sgt. t Terry Santiago. Roger also had a childhood friend in Noonan, Ga. - Andy Lane - who was gay. But Roger didn't find out about that for 20 years. In his essay, he asks, in effect, what's up with that? These were my friends. Why didn't I know? And why haven't I been more supportive of their gay rights? Why was I OK with just civil unions and not gay marriage?
And so Roger, a Southern Baptist, set out to apologize to both men. Let's hear their story now. Roger Dean Huffstetler joins us in the studio. Welcome.
ROGER DEAN HUFFSTETLER: Thank you for having me.
YOUNG: And Andy and Terry are at the studios of NPR in New York. Andy Lane, are you there?
ANDREW LANE: I'm here.
YOUNG: And Roger's comrade in Afghanistan, Terry Santiago, are you there?
TERRY SANTIAGO: Yes, I am.
YOUNG: Well, welcome to you both. And I guess congratulations also because we understand Roger found out that you were both gay when he read on Facebook you were getting married to other men. So congratulations to you both.
LANE: Thank you.
SANTIAGO: Thank you.
YOUNG: What would we do without Facebook? So...
YOUNG: Well Roger, one was your comrade in arms, the other a comrade in childhood. What's your thinking? Were you, like, what?
HUFFSTETLER: Well, I think it's just that. I saw on Facebook one day that Sgt. Santiago was engaged to a man, and I said, well, my goodness, he slept arms-length away, and I didn't know this about him. What does that mean about me? And then I found out the same thing about Andy and just thought to myself, well, my goodness, Andy was in the Noonan choir with me. And it just got me thinking about things and made me realize that maybe I need to rethink my position on this issue, maybe I need to rethink these things, and...
YOUNG: Well, let's hold up there because you started to think, what did I say in front of, at least, Terry? - who you'd seen most recently.
HUFFSTETLER: That's correct.
YOUNG: But you're not a gay basher.
HUFFSTETLER: No, I'm not. To my knowledge, I've never intentionally done anything to hurt anyone's feelings or make them feel different. But I wanted to sort of think about that. You know, what have I done, and is having this position of civil unions a tenable position? If not, why not?
YOUNG: Yeah because previously, you'd thought a civil union, that's fine, and now you're thinking, well, wait a minute, these are my friends. I'm wondering, too, if there's a little bit of heartache 'cause you're kind of a little bit outside of their life.
HUFFSTETLER: Yeah, I think that's right, and you realize that you weren't able to get to know them well enough to maybe know that part of their life a little bit more. It makes you wonder, well, maybe I wasn't as good a friend as I thought I was. Maybe there are things about the way I'm viewing the world that doesn't make me as open as I tell myself I am.
YOUNG: Yeah, maybe they couldn't trust you as a friend. Well, let's ask. Terry, of course this is during don't ask, don't tell. But still, tell us from your end, Roger's asking maybe I wasn't the kind of person somebody would approach. What was your view?
SANTIAGO: Well, I mean, I think with me at least, even with the people that I came out to that - later on in the military, it wasn't really about that I didn't trust them, it was just this fear of losing your job. I was still in the military, and it was under don't ask, don't tell, so you're under this idea that you have to keep it secret, and you can't really express it, and it tumbles over into I guess your private life.
So it wasn't really, you know, that I didn't trust him. It's just you have this fear.
YOUNG: Well Roger, you decide to go on this road trip to make amends to your friends.
HUFFSTETLER: I just said to my wife Emily, it's really important for me to go see these two men. And to be honest, I had no idea what I was going to say. I just knew that I needed to go and say I'm sorry if I wasn't a good enough friend for you at the time, but, you know, I want to change that now. I just want to make sure that I'm doing everything I can to make sure I'm on the right side of history.
YOUNG: So let's start with you, Andy. Your childhood friend Roger knocks on the door and what?
LANE: I thought that Roger just wanted to get together and catch up. So we met for breakfast, and, you know, we starting catching up and telling each other about our lives and our partners. And so Roger, you know, told me about his story and about his process of coming out as a straight man in support of gay marriage. And Roger told me that, you know, my coming out and Terry's coming out actually influenced him in that process.
YOUNG: In the writing, I mean this - Roger, this sounds kind of emotional for you.
HUFFSTETLER: It was very emotional. I remember being teary-eyed when I talked to Terry and Andy. I think, you know, it just dawns on you, like these people, they were just not allowed to be themselves, and I was part of that. I think it affected me.
YOUNG: You had a sense of yourself, a notion about yourself. You write that during the civil rights era, you're from the South, that you would have been the one out marching with the blacks as they faced dogs and fire hoses. You'd like to think you would have been the one out there, and then you thought what?
HUFFSTETLER: Well, that wasn't true, and we know that's not true because...
YOUNG: In this modern battle.
HUFFSTETLER: In this modern battle because we know that right now people are being denied certain rights because of who they are. And I just don't think that's fair. I don't think that's in keeping with the principles that the country was founded upon.
YOUNG: Hey Andy, what was it like for you to be receiving this?
LANE: It was a little bit surprising for me to hear Roger tell me all of this. I thought it was wonderful to hear, you know, his thoughts and to hear about his, you know, his own account and his own process of, you know, coming to realize that gay men and lesbians, as separate but equal, is not being on the right side of history.
But I did feel a little bit like, you know, Roger, it's OK. You know, there are a lot of people who I didn't tell that I was gay when I was growing up.
YOUNG: Roger, does that make you feel better that it wasn't personal, or does that make you feel worse, that he couldn't trust anyone, to tell anyone?
HUFFSTETLER: It definitely - you know, their feedback made me feel better, but I think it misses the point a little bit. I appreciated that they can't single out an event or something that I did, but the fact that I was silent before, that means I'm not doing everything I can to make sure it's OK they can be themselves.
YOUNG: Terry Santiago, I'm wondering, as you listen, do you have any thoughts now of, wow, when we were separated by that piece of plywood in that tight space in Afghanistan, it would have been nice to have had some of these conversations?
SANTIAGO: It would have been amazing to have someone there that, you know, I could talk to and express myself to and, you know, get the things out that I'd been holding in.
YOUNG: Well, and it sounds like everybody here is saying that, Roger you, as well. And you have a message going forward to people, especially in the military. What is that?
HUFFSTETLER: Well, I just think it's pretty simple. Silence can be a powerful consent. And, you know, maybe if you find out someone that you knew in your past was gay, but you didn't know it, well, maybe you can just say to them, hey, you know, I'm sorry, maybe I could've been there to support you a little bit more. Find the Sergeant Santiagos and Andys in your life and make amends. There's still time to be on the right side of history.
YOUNG: What has been the reaction to your piece in the Washington Post?
HUFFSTETLER: Overall I think the response has been very positive. You know, my mom asked me to read about it and pray about it, and I did those things, and I came to a conclusion that maybe she's not happy with, but I was very happy to try to do the things she asked me to do. And some other folks who I know who had been in the Mormon Church, who had separated from that church because of this issue in particular, they were supportive.
I had a number of people from our hometown in Noonan who got in touch with me. The Noonan Times Herald printed the article, which I was very proud of. And most of - you know, a lot of positive response from classmates. I haven't spoken to my grandmother about it; I doubt that we will, to be honest.
HUFFSTETLER: But - love her, too, (unintelligible). You know, I'm not a Baptist basher. I was raised in the Baptist Church, and a lot of folks there were very kind to me and gave me a scholarship to go to undergraduate. So I think we're probably going to disagree on this issue, but I think at the end of the day, I want to do my part to make sure we're speaking out about what is blatant discrimination in treating people differently because of who they are.
YOUNG: Roger, thanks so much.
YOUNG: Again, former Marine Roger Dean Huffstetler. We also spoke with his friends Andrew Lane, Sergeant Terry Santiago. Thanks to them, as well. And you could read Roger's essay about their friendship at hereandnow.org. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.