FORT JACKSON, S.C. — Carter Driggs was separated from the Air Force in 2006 because of what the armed forces then considered to be an insurmountable character flaw: he’s gay. Now, over a decade later, he is a graduate of Army Basic Combat Training as of last week.
At the time of his Air Force service, Driggs, now 32, was banned by law from discussing his sexual orientation. But the truth eventually found its way to Driggs’ superiors.
“I was deployed at the time,” Driggs said. “It was my second deployment, and I was contacted by my unit back home in Germany that some information had come to light about my sexuality, and that I was to return to Germany right away.”
At least 11,000 service members were discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a 1993 policy that prohibited gays and lesbians from serving openly. Even though Driggs said he had faithfully kept his part of the bargain, it didn’t stop the Air Force for severing ties with Driggs just two years into his career.
“Because I was on my second tour, and because I had volunteered for that tour, my commander saw fit to discharge me honorably,” Driggs said. “We parted ways in a mutually agreeable fashion, and I’ve been trying ever since the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy was repealed to get back in.”
Last year, he succeeded in convincing an Army recruiter that he was serious about reestablishing a military career. Last week, he graduated from basic training at Fort Jackson with the 2nd Battalion, 60th Infantry Regiment.
“The first time around, I always walked around on pins and needles, but I’ve always been good about hiding (my sexuality),” Driggs said. “But there was always this constant fear of being discovered, which I eventually was.”
He’s been planning a return to uniform since ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ was repealed in 2010.
“He’s been talking about it ever since we met,” said his husband, Blake Driggs. “He loved it.”
“I was heartbroken,” recalled Carter Driggs. “I loved serving, and I’m thankful to have the opportunity to serve again, because it’s not something I wanted to stop doing in the first place.”
The loss of his father also played a role in his decision to give life in the military a second chance.
“My father raised me to lead a life of service,” he said. “That’s something I really wanted to exemplify again in honouring him and his memory.”
More has changed since 2006 than just the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” While there was no longer any legal reason to keep parts of his life secret, much of the social stigma around same-sex relationships also lifted during that time. Driggs said he knew of three other gay Soldiers in his graduating unit that would have had interesting stories to share. The need for secrecy appears to be over.
“This time around, there wasn’t a person in the company that didn’t know and that wasn’t 100 percent supportive,” Driggs said. “I’m very grateful for that, and I’m grateful for how far the military has come in the 11 years since I’ve been discharged to allow me this opportunity to come back and make things right.”
The abandonment of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ was not the only difference this time around, though. At age 32, Driggs was almost twice as old as some of the other Soldiers training with him. And the differences in Air Force and Army basic training weren’t immediately apparent, he said.
“They are more similar than different, especially during the first three weeks, during red phase,” he said. “They’re incredibly similar, with the psychological games and the physical activity. But, from there, the paths really diverge quite significantly. We don’t carry weapons in the Air Force during basic training, just for the few days we’re qualifying on the weapon will we carry them at all. Physically, for the last seven weeks, the Army is significantly more strenuous.”
At first, Driggs said he wasn’t sure it was a challenge he could meet. The age difference, the change in training standards and the life expectations of an adult might not properly align with the life of a Soldier in Basic Combat Training, he said.
But, that was also the point.
“I wanted to put myself up to a challenge that I didn’t think, at least at the beginning, that I could accomplish,” he said. “I’m not here because it’s easy. I’m here because I believe in myself.”
His experiences also gave him an unexpected advantage. While he might have lacked the youthful stamina of a teenager, a little bit of maturity went a long way.
“My life experiences and my prior military experience did play a role in getting me the Platoon Guide position, allowing me to guide the 52 Soldiers we started with, and the 35 we graduated with,” he said. “I contribute that to my age and experience.”