Spending a year in a warzone would be difficult for anyone, but for MSUM alumnus Bronson Lemer, life in Iraq was different for another reason: He had to serve while hiding the fact that he is gay.
Lemer shares his experiences being deployed with the North Dakota Army National Guard under the recently repealed “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in his book, “The Last Deployment: How A Gay Hammer-Swinging Twentysomething Survived a Year in Iraq.”
The book is about more than just being gay, though, Lemer said. It’s about the sum of his experiences in Iraq in 2003 and how he was changed by helping a nation in turmoil.
“It’s about being young and discovering who you are in an unexpected place,” he said. “I think it’s about longing and despair and memory. I think it’s about having to hide a certain part of who you are in order to … do something you want to do or finish something you’ve committed to. It’s about all of these things sort of put together.”
Building the book
He began writing the book – in a way – in Iraq by keeping meticulous journals of day-to-day events in Iraq.
“When I left, I knew I wanted to at least record what was going on,” Lemer said. “I wrote down everything – what we were doing, what I was feeling. When I got back from there, I started working on stories from that information.”
He had a year left on his degree – a bachelor’s in English and mass communications – when he returned to MSUM, and he started telling the stories that would form the book.
The MSUM community provided Lemer with the first feedback on his stories. English professor Lin Enger read some of the first chapters, offering feedback and assistance. The first chapter he wrote for the book appeared in the campus literary magazine, Red Weather.
“That was another thing (that helped) I think, having that outlet – having Red Weather, being able to submit to a publication like that and having my work read by other people,” Lemer said.
After graduating in 2005, Lemer went to Minnesota State University Mankato, earned a master’s in creative writing in 2008. “The Last Deployment” was his thesis.
In June, the book was released by the University of Wisconsin Press as part of their “Living Out: Gay and Lesbian Autobiographies” series.
With “don’t ask, don’t tell” repealed, Lemer said it’s a great feeling to know his book has become part of the historical record – chronicling a part of the nation’s military history and in a civil rights movement.
“I think that’s the weight of the book – and a large part of the meaning of the book – for people to realize what sort of impact this policy had on people who served in the military. … I feel great that it has more of a deeper meaning through its place within the military.”
The repeal of DADT will make life easier for gay men and women in the military, Lemer said.
“If ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ had been repealed back in 2003 when I was deployed, I hope I would still have done some good over there, but my experience would have been very different because I wouldn’t have had to worry about hiding that part of my life, and worrying about that is something I shouldn’t have had to do,” Lemer said.
“In September (when) it was repealed, I felt more joy in that day than I did in almost any other day in my military career. That was a policy I felt wasn’t helpful to the military and wasn’t helpful to the people who serve in the military.”
The end of “don’t ask, don’t tell” will help the military, he said.
“We can move forward and not have this policy where people had to hide,” Lemer said. “I’m looking forward to seeing how much better our military can be now that the policy is no longer there, and now that young people and everyone have the opportunity to serve – and to serve openly – as who they are and not have to hide a large part of their life.”
Finding a place
That’s the other message in the book, Lemer said. “I guess my goal with writing the book was to prove that you could do both … serve your country and openly be a gay man or woman. You should be able to do both. My experience in Iraq was sort of to prove that.”
Being in Iraq helped him to do more than prove a gay man could serve his country though.
“I learned so much about myself; I learned so much about other people,” Lemer said.
“Just being in that country and being able to help in some way. I did do some good while I was in Iraq, being a carpenter and helping repair schools and hospitals. … I learned some about humanity in general and culture.”
That’s part of the reason, Lemer said, he would still enlist in the Guard if he could do it over, even knowing how much of himself he would be forced to hide.
“I don’t think I’d be the same person I am today if I didn’t sign up,” he said. “To get to where I am now, I’d have to go through that.”
Lemer, now a writing instructor at the University of Minnesota Rochester, said that’s another message he wants readers to take away from the book – that there’s a place for people to serve and find themselves, regardless of their sexual orientation.
With the bullying climate that has intensified in the past few years, Lemer said he hopes books like his can help show “that young gay men and women can have sort of a place within the world and within society, and within organizations like the military and be able to serve. That’s one of the things I’m happiest that this repeal has gone through because it shows people, here’s an environment that accepts you as who you are.”
“That’s a really big message I hope people take away from the book,” Lemer said, “because it’s really needed.”
“The Last Deployment” is available from Amazon, and the University of Wisconsin Press at uwpress.wisc.edu/books/4814.htm.
BY ALICIA STRNAD