"We joined the Navy to see the world, and what did we see, we saw the sea." Such went the Irving Berlin tune made famous by Fred Astaire in the 1930s as he danced his way across an aircraft carrier in the movie "Fleet Week."
In a modern-day rendition, I had the honor to "join the Navy" for a few hours aboard the USS Harry Truman, and what I saw was a sea of change happening right before my eyes. A few days before my visit, the Navy was the first branch of the military to announce guidelines for implementing the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the policy that has barred gays from serving openly in the U.S. military since 1993.
I was invited by Naval Air Station Key West commander Capt. Patrick Lefere to fly from NAS Key West to the aircraft carrier USS Harry Truman as part of what the Navy calls its "Distinguished Visitors Program." What an amazing experience this was for me.
We arrived at NAS Key West at 5:15 a.m. The Navy does not believe in sleeping in! We were a small group, and boarded a cargo plane on our way to the aircraft carrier. After a pretty amazing "tailhook" landing, we were escorted to meet the commanding officer and several members of the crew. We watched airplanes land and take off right before our eyes on the deck of the aircraft carrier; we toured the ship and met so many wonderful sailors and officers.
The most amazing part of the experience was witnessing firsthand the dedication, hospitality and passion of the men and women of this ship. To a person, everyone was professional, intelligent and proud of their ship and of their country. You forget after a while that the average age of the crew was 21 years old. I have socks older than most of these sailors!
There were some very interesting surprises. The most surprising was the number of women on the ship. According to one of the officers, the crew of the USS Harry Truman is nearly 40 percent female. The Navy has come a long way since the Tailhook scandal of the early 1990s. When you walk the halls and decks of the ship, women were serving in every capacity. From the woman who was at the wheel of the ship literally driving this huge aircraft carrier, to the women sailors and officers who staffed the air traffic control center aboard, I was struck by the diversity of the crew and their dedication. There are even women Navy pilots deployed with this ship.
Women are serving side by side with men on this ship, with an obvious and palpable high morale among the crew and a "proud to be an American" vibe that was infectious. The uniforms were the same, the boots were polished and the pride was real. They were all sailors; not female sailors or male sailors, simply sailors united around one goal -- to protect and defend our freedoms. This experience gave me great hope for the future when openly gay and lesbian sailors and officers will serve side by side with heterosexual ones and will simply be "sailors" as well.
I had several opportunities to ask questions of the crew. The first was to a member of the chaplain corps. This officer was not a chaplain, but a lay person. I asked him what plans they had for implementing the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
He became a bit nervous at the question, clearly uncomfortable. However, he quickly regained his composure and said " ... I'm in the Navy. I will do what the Navy tells me to do." Hardly a ringing endorsement, but at least an honest answer.
Later I met a wonderful young man who was the 25-year-old crew chief on the flight back home. He was telling me about his girlfriend and how they met and how he loved the Navy. We talked about his take on openly gay service members serving side by side. He was so incredibly mature for his age and so open. He said: "You know, sir, if someone wants to serve their country, I don't care who they are; just that they want to serve and that they do a good job."
This gave me such great hope. The ways of the past are unraveling and a path to equality for gay and lesbian service members is coming. The men and women of the USS Harry Truman are a living example of what is possible when people are united around a common goal and a common mission. Several generations ago, their namesake, President Harry Truman, desegregated the military. The fact that for one day, there was at least one openly gay person aboard this ship is a testament to what is possible in this country in this wonderful time.
The very rights and freedoms that these young people are fighting for abroad are the same rights and freedoms that gay and lesbian Americans are fighting for back home, Keep up the great work, sailors -- you make us all proud!
Rudy Molinet is a real estate broker, co-owner of Marquis Properties Realty in Key West and a community and human rights activist. He lives in Old Town with Harry Hoehn, his spouse of 18 years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.