A DADT Survivor :: Reichen Lehmkuhl’s Story

by Frank Elaridi
Wednesday Jan 5, 2011

In January of 1994, Cadet Reichen Lehmkuhl was pulled out of his bed at the U.S. Air Force Academy in the middle of the night by two of his fellow cadets who snuck into his room, and began to physically assault him-for being gay.

"These two cowards waited until my roommate was on a training trip," Lehmkuhl recalled. "They put a bag over my head and pulled me out of bed. They stripped my underwear off and they beat the shit out of me. While they were doing it, they told me why: It was because I was a 'faggot,' because they didn't want me there, and because 'the academy doesn't need a faggot in it.'

Now 36, Reichen Lehmkuhl would become second lieutenant, first lieutenant, and finally a captain in the Air Force. Back then, however, he had no one to confide in and no one to comfort him. Instead, he covered the bruises that covered his face and body, and kept the ordeal to himself.

"I couldn't go to a hospital, I couldn't go to a chaplin, I couldn't go to my commander, and I had no counselor to go to," he said. "So you basically cry into your pillow for two days, and try to find something to cover your bruises."

Lehmkuhl's story is not uncommon. In 2009, there were 428 discharges under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" -- a significant drop from past years. Late last year, the government finally ended this discriminatory policy.

This is one airman's story.

Reichen Lehmkuhl had a number of elements in his upbringing that impelled him to become a skillful pilot. His grandmother was a pilot in World War II, one of the women who fought their way into the military. She "started flying me when I was nine-years-old and I became obsessed with flying," Lehmkuhl said. "I knew I was going to be an Air Force pilot and it's what I wanted to do."

His grandmother told him stories about her male colleagues who would get caught pouring sand in the women's training planes to get them to crash because they so desperately did not want women to serve in the Air Force with them. "She passed away as I was getting out of the military," Lehmkuhl explained, "but I know that she would be so proud of me."

The pressure of living under a shadow
Proud, he says, because of his dedication to the aid of ending DADT. On Reichen's Facebook page, before DADT's repeal, his activism -- along with supermodel-good-looks -- allowed him to amas a strong following.

He toured the country and spoke to businesses, schools and organizations about the implications of the policy and his own personal experience serving under its shadow. He spoke, for example, at Video Products Distributors, a Fortune 500 company whose CEO believed his employees could benefit from hearing Reichen's perspective on unfair employment discrimination.

Reichen served under the policy, in place for 17 years, for nine years, until he decided that he could no longer tolerate the burden of having to hide his true self and lie to his fellow soldiers about his sexuality. For heterosexual people, he noted, it might be difficult to understand the daily strain that comes along with a gay soldier having to conceal his or her identity from the people they are expected to trust the most.

"It wasn't just about not being able to say I was gay," Lehmkuhl said. "I had a partner at the time, and I couldn't ever talk about him." Fellow soldiers could talk about their wives and husbands.

"I never could bring my partner to their house," he added. "I always felt like something was missing, and I always felt left out, and I hated it. This policy mandated that I had to live this way, and it really broke down my moral, and it broke down our unit moral, because people thought that I was a snob, and that I didn't want to hang out with them. I loved these people, I loved the Air Force and I loved my job, but I couldn't stand the way the policy made me feel."

When he speaks, there is strength paired with softness in his tone. His masculine voice projects a delicate message of the emptiness and discomfort that came as a result of serving in silence. The small support Reichen had at the Academy was a secret group of gay and lesbian soldiers who confided in one another and occasionally found refuge in weekend houses away from the base.

"Sometimes we'd all get together at the same time, and sometimes we'd get together separately," Lehmkuhl said. "They were amazing: they were athletes, Rhodes Scholars, military dorks--people who loved all of the military stuff, and we all had our secret. We all knew about each other, and we got to know each other really well."

"It's stupid little lies," Lehmkuhl explained about the heaping up of half-truths necessary to get along. "You're lying about things that you would never think you would have to question your integrity on, like 'I met my partner's parents yesterday, it was so exciting.' You can't come into work and say that, but everyone else can. Honestly, who we date and how we live in our romantic lives is a big part of every person's life--- even a soldier's life. The majority of the time soldiers sit around in Afghanistan, they're talking about their partners at home, and they can't wait for the letters to come in."

Next: Like the Salem Witch Trials


  • Antony1977, 2011-01-13 23:40:16

    I admire this man. It’s really a shame that a gay man/woman can go and bravely fight for our country’s rights and for the freedom we ALL endure without exceptions (of ’who’ they’re fighting for) and STILL be beaten down because ’someone’ found out what he/she did behind closed doors of their own business and own life in a heartbeat. I’m so glad that we have finally gotten to a strong point to where black and white doesn’t matter (which took YEARS and is still in progression). If a gay man is willing to fight for our country and you don’t agree with his/her lifestyle... don’t be an ingrate. Who do you think you are? Stop what you’re doing... say goodbye to your loved ones... and get YOUR ass out there. If you’re ALREADY fighting for our country along side your fellow soldier, and don’t agree with someone who is ’different’ than you and want to beat them for it... go back home. You’re heart is in the wrong place. This is America. Fight for what we ALL stand...(National Anthem... read and ’understand’ it) PLEASE NOTE: This was not meant to offend anyone, but only express my opinion on the article above.

  • Antony1977, 2011-01-14 00:03:07

    *The Pledge of Allegiance*, I meant. =D

Add New Comment

Comments on Facebook