I was 18 years old when I landed in the kingdom of Bahrain, off the coast of Saudi Arabia, in the winter of 2005. This was the day I had been dreaming about since I'd enlisted in the Navy a few months before, on my birthday. I loved my country, and I knew that I was ready to prove myself in action.
I also knew that I was gay.
However, I chose to put service above my personal life. My understanding of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy was that if I kept quiet about my sexuality and didn't break any rules, I would face no punishment. I was wrong.
Once I joined the Navy, I was tormented by my chief and fellow sailors, physically and emotionally, for being gay. The irony of "don't ask, don't tell" is that it protects bigots and punishes gays who comply.
I was part of an elite group of handlers working with dogs trained to detect explosives. For 12 hours a day in 112-degree heat with 85 percent humidity, we searched vehicles for explosives and responded to any threats. I loved the job, but there wasn't a day that went by when I wasn't completely miserable.
Shop talk in the unit revolved around sex, either the prostitute-filled parties of days past or the escapades my comrades looked forward to. They interpreted my silence and lack of interest as an admission of homosexuality. My higher-ups seemed to think that gave them the right to bind me to chairs, ridicule me, hose me down and lock me in a feces-filled dog kennel.
I told no one about what I was living through. I feared that reporting the abuse would lead to an investigation into my sexuality. My leaders and fellow sailors were punishing me for keeping my sexuality to myself, punishing me because I wouldn't "tell."
I even saw "don't ask, don't tell" used against heterosexual female service members who had reported being the victims of sexual assault. The easiest way to make the problem go away was to scare the women into silence by saying, "I hear you're a lesbian." After all, homosexuals have no rights in our military.
But the abuse wasn't invisible to everyone. In 2005, roughly six months into my time with that unit, a new sailor in our group was taken aback when I was left tied up in a dog kennel. She reported the incident and, from what I understand, this prompted an internal investigation into hazing in my unit.
The Navy confirmed 93 incidents of misconduct, including hazing, abuse, physical assault, solicitation of prostitutes and misuse of government property and funds, but the case was closed. After receiving a letter of caution, the military's version of a slap on the wrist, my chief was eventually promoted in rank and position.
After more than two years of abuse and the Navy's unwillingness to punish the top leadership in my unit, I was mentally and emotionally depleted. So I made the most difficult decision of my life, which was to write a statement to my commanding officer declaring that I was a homosexual. "I understand that this statement will be used to end my Naval career," I wrote.
For years, I kept this story a secret from my loved ones, wanting simply to move on. But I believe we have a window of opportunity now in the effort to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," and this has propelled me to go public with my experience.
The more I talk about what happened to me, the more I hear from others who have been in similar situations. They are hopeful that we may soon have a different kind of military, that gay and lesbian men and women can serve the country we love with job security and dignity.
Despite everything, I am hopeful, too.