My name is Zackariah Gonzales and on March 21, 2006, I was betrayed by the country I swore to protect and defend. After months of investigation and being subjected to one of the most humiliating and inhumane processes I was fired under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” from the United States Coast Guard. My story is painfully real, but it is one that must be told and heard.
November 2005, Training Center Petaluma, California: I was a young seaman who had just completed a tour at a Search and Rescue Station on the Great Lakes. I was sent to Petaluma to undergo Food Service Specialist School, where I excelled in my training and ended up graduating first in my class. Originally, I received orders to a Coast Guard Base in Virginia, however before graduation an urgent billet posted for a Coast Guard Cutter that was preparing for an overseas deployment; being one of the few single males in my class I was selected. I was flown home to spend Thanksgiving with my family before I was ordered to report to my cutter for immediate deployment to Central and South America to support the War on Drugs. Our mission was simple, stop the flow of drugs into America at any cost.
November-December 2005, somewhere in the Western Pacific: I was adjusting to shipboard life, I was taken in by the group of ten or so gays and lesbians we had on board. Our mission was going well, however each encounter with a “go-fast” boat was becoming increasingly hostile often ending in an exchange of gun fire. Tragedy struck when our sister ship was engaging a hostile vessel in international waters; they launched their helicopter with a sniper to disable the vessel, the helicopter never returned. For three days we combed the waters searching for any piece of wreckage or any bodies. Nothing was ever found.
January 2006, Panama City, Republic of Panama: We had reached the mid-point of our deployment and were granted a few days of well deserved liberty. I went to a local bar and found a handsome local gentleman, we began a brief but passionate affair, he never made light of the fact that I was an American sailor. One night when a taxi driver was taking us back to my hotel room; the situation turned in a way I never thought was possible. The taxi driver asked to speak to me privately after arriving at the hotel; he said he needed information on the ship’s missions, how many prisoners had we taken? Where were we going next? How long can we stay at sea? When I told him there was simply no way I could give him that information, he became very angry and said that if I didn’t start sharing information with him he was going to have to report me to the Defense Attaché at the American Embassy and divulge my affair with a local man. I once again refused and I ended up buying his silence. The driver continued to follow me, each encounter growing more and more hostile. Our final encounter turned violent and I felt that my safety was threatened so I had another driver take me immediately back to the Cutter.
I returned to the Cutter and informed the Officer of the Deck that there had been an Operational Security Breach and I was being blackmailed for classified intelligence, while I carefully left out my male lover. I was immediately taken to the Commanding Officer, who listened to my story, he then ordered me to write a statement of what had occurred and stated that he didn’t care about any incriminating evidence, he needed it be honest though so he could get the information to Counterintelligence. I was escorted to my office where I wrote the full and honest truth, under the presumption of immunity. The next day liberty expired and we were underway again, my division officer informed me that they were considering initiating discharge proceedings against me for violations of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Over the next few weeks I was subjected some of the most humiliating events of my life. I was immediately stripped of a promotion I was about to receive and removed from consideration for a meritorious citation. The cutter’s medical chief declared I was “HIV+” and was removed from being a medic during emergency situations. The executive officer declared that I was an “alcoholic” and a “clear threat to the ship’s mission and morale.” I requested numerous times to be sent back to the United States for legal services and medical and mental health services, all of which were denied.
Discharge proceedings were initiated against me and I was finally granted legal counsel in the form of a 5 minute satellite phone conversation in which I was told to shut up and be thankful I was getting an honorable discharge. I raised numerous objections to the proceedings all of which were summarily ignored.
March 2006, Alameda, California: Finally we reached homeport ,where I was placed on a strict HIV testing program as well as sent for an alcoholic evaluation. It was determined that I did not meet the clinical guidelines for alcoholism, but I was ordered to attend a diversion program anyway. I also hired a local attorney, who had been a former JAG officer; she immediately determined the discharge was illegal and appealed all the way up to the Commander of the Pacific Fleet to halt the discharge. All the requests were denied and on March 21, 2006, I was dismissed from the Coast Guard with an Honorable Discharge for “Homosexual Conduct.”
I was debriefed by several intelligence agents from various three lettered agencies. I shared all information with them freely. As the debriefing came to a close, one of the agents turned to me and said “if you were straight you would be getting a medal pinned to your chest, not fighting discharge proceedings.” It was later determined that the taxi driver was a low level informant for a cartel and as for my lover, they could never connect with him.
It took three years of legal and administrative action, thousands of pages of documents, research and emails and a trip to Washington D.C. before the United States Coast Guard Discharge Review Board came to a final ruling. In 5-0 decision they ruled that the Command had violated provisions of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and did not follow Coast Guard policy on discharge proceedings, my rights under the Uniform Code of Military Justice were violated, I was not afforded adequate legal representation and my discharge was illegal. They ordered that my discharge reason be changed from “homosexual conduct” to “general reasons” they also ordered that I be allowed to reenlist if I choose. The Commandant of the Coast Guard overruled my reinstatement, but let the rest of the decision stand.
My name is Zackariah Gonzales, I am from Boise, Idaho, I was fired for being gay from the U.S. Armed Forces and I will not stop telling my story until the ban is lifted.