Health/Fitness » HIV/AIDS

AIDS Day 2011: HIV-Positive in the Military

by Shaun Knittel
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Dec 1, 2011

In June 2009, Marcus Tibbets (not his real name) joined the U.S. Navy right out of high school at a Marietta, Georgia recruiting station. Since becoming a sailor, Tibbets' life has changed in many ways -- both imaginable and unimaginable. Earlier this year, in February, Tibbets' tested positive for HIV.

"I found out when my ex-boyfriend tested positive," he told EDGE. "I then went to the Naval Hospital where I am stationed in Pensacola, Florida. Shortly after, results were in, and here we are today."

Tibbets' said that the diagnosis and the cheating took him by complete surprise. "My ex and I were together for two and a half years. We had gotten tested for HIV together regularly since the beginning of the relationship," he said. "When he tested positive, I confronted him."

The young sailor learned that his boyfriend had several indiscretions outside their relationship that had involved unprotected anal receptive intercourse. It was during one of those occasions that his boyfriend contracted HIV and then, subsequently, passed it on to him. Their relationship -- and life as Tibbets knew it -- was over.

"At first I took the news relatively hard," he said. "I will admit, I was not educated on the subject past a high school health class in which you might brush the topic of HIV for an hour or so. So it definitely was an emotional roller coaster going from shock to anger to guilt to depression and back to anger."

That's when the unlikeliest of allies stepped in: Tibbets' employer, the U.S. Navy. Tibbets, who is openly gay, joined under the now-defunct discriminatory law, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

"The Navy wasted no time at all in providing me the assistance I needed," Tibbets maintained. "Once testing positive, the service member is sent to one of the 'Big Three' (referring to Bethesda, Portsmouth, or Balboa military hospitals) where they undergo two to three weeks of education, counseling (both one-on-one and group), and lab work."

"They assess everything," he continued. "It truly was an educational experience and made me feel much more at ease about my situation."

Now Tibbets is on medication, undetectable, and is sent to one of the "Big Three" every six months to complete lab work and follow up counseling.

HIV Testing in the Military

HIV testing started in the military in the mid-1980s, when the rates were much higher. Then, doctors thought that anyone infected with HIV would die within two years, and people who tested positive had to leave the military. That policy was changed by 1990. Now, HIV-positive people are allowed to stay in the military, unless they develop AIDS.

The only restriction in the Navy for a service member who is HIV-positive is that they are not allowed to be deployed or stationed outside the continental United States. While that may seem like a pretty major restriction, Tibbets said he is grateful because "I am able to stay in for a career."

"The Navy wasted no time at all in providing me the assistance I needed," said Marcus Tibbets. "Once testing positive, the service member is sent to undergo education, counseling (both one-on-one and group), and lab work.

"Overall," he said, "I have not felt any negative affects career-wise regarding my HIV-positive status."

"I am extremely pleased with the Navy," Tibbets said. "I will say that they take care of their people. I work in the labor and delivery ward, where I act as the departmental training representative of sixty personnel, a team leader of six corpsmen, and the preceptor to new orientees arriving to the floor. This is on top of my primary duties in the delivery room."

He said he finds his job to be very rewarding and he is currently one semester away from receiving a Registered Nurse degree. "I owe that to the Navy and their Tuition Assistance Program. I can honestly say I thoroughly enjoy my field and branch of service."

December means more to Tibbets than the holiday season and time he might get off at work. December, he reminds us, is HIV awareness month.

"Do yourself a favor and become educated on the subject. There are many who are blind to it, and every voice can make a difference," said Tibbets. "This [HIV/AIDS] is a pandemic, people. There are many service members living with this disease today."

The young man says he has now focused a lot of his attention and time towards helping get rid of the stigma that surrounds gay men and HIV/AIDS.

"Please stop judging those affected by this virus," he said. "You do not know their story, and most people cannot comprehend the added pressures living with HIV/AIDS causes. Please be accepting and make an attempt to learn about the disease."

"Don't feel sorry for us or pity us," he said, adding, "We will be okay, just treat us like what we are -- people."

Tibbets said he has a message for service members who might one day learn that they too, are HIV-positive: "Relax. Take a deep breath. This is not the end of the world, I promise," he said. "Be thankful you are in the military, because we receive a lot more assistance and guidance than our civilian counterparts. We get the best medical treatment available."

"There is a beautiful world out there, so just live your life," he added. "Be grateful for every day you have and know that this disease is manageable and you are likely to live a long, healthy life."

Still, he cautions, "I'm not saying you should just shrug it off. I'm not saying that at all. Deal with it the way you feel you need to. Be mad, be hurt, be angry, be shocked, but just keep in mind that this is part of the healing process."

At the end of the day, Tibbets said he will be fine -- after all, he's the type of person, "Who would give the shirt off my back to anyone in need."

"I'm blunt, honest, and upfront about everything," he concluded. "I'm also one of the most sarcastic people you'll ever meet. Watch the movie 'Easy A.' I'm the male equivalent of Emma Stone."

Shaun Knittel is an openly gay journalist and public affairs specialist living in Seattle. His work as a photographer, columnist, and reporter has appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout the Pacific Northwest. In addition to writing for EDGE, Knittel is the current Associate Editor for Seattle Gay News.


Comments

  • johnny.barker, 2011-12-01 17:46:49

    I’m positive and in the Air Force. Daniel, I really respect you for doing this article. Thank you for putting yourself out there like that to make a difference! I really believe that us not being ashamed of it and being open is the most powerful way to combat the stigma. Keep it up!


  • , 2011-12-01 20:08:43

    I’m very glad the USN is taking such care of HIV positive personnel. I actually expected this article to be 180 degrees off. Well done.


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