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Published July 03, 2011, 04:22 PM

Former ND National Guard Member Shares Experience as Gay Man Serving in Military

Like a lot of high school seniors, Bronson Lemer didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do with his life. What he did know is he wouldn’t find what he wanted in his small hometown of Harvey.

By: John Lamb, Forum Communications

FARGO – Like a lot of high school seniors, Bronson Lemer didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do with his life.

What he did know is he wouldn’t find what he wanted in his small hometown of Harvey.

So in the fall of 1997, Lemer joined the North Dakota National Guard.

But Lemer was different from most new recruits. The teenager was gay and heading into a culture that, under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” forbade him to discuss or even acknowledge that part of his identity. The pressure to keep his private life under wraps compounded when he was deployed to Kosovo in 2000 and shipped off to Iraq in 2003, six months shy of fulfilling his Guard contract.

Lemer, now 30 and a former Forum employee, describes his struggles, both physical – coping with Baghdad heat while dressed in combat gear – and emotional – keeping his true identity guarded – in his book “The Last Deployment,” which will be released Monday.

Serving under cover

During his Iraq deployment, Lemer chronicled everything from the calming chess matches with a fellow soldier to his highly alert interaction with Iraqi kids wanting to play while he kept guard.

Shortly after he fulfilled his contract in 2004, the idea to expand those entries into a book crystallized.

“I knew I had a story I wanted to tell … . It was a story that hadn’t been told yet,” Lemer recently said after a Minneapolis reading during Gay Pride Week in the Twin Cities.

Lemer plans to read from his book at Zandbroz Variety on Aug. 11 as part of Fargo-Moorhead’s Pride events.

When it comes to why he joined the military, Lemer frankly admits

it was not because of patriotism, or carrying on a family tradition. Describing himself as “aimless,” it was the lure of money, financial aid for college and the chance to see other parts of the world.

Knowing he was gay when he signed up, Lemer didn’t fully come to grips with what being gay in the military would mean.

“I thought the pros outweighed the cons, and I followed through to deal with it,” he says.

Over the years in service, he not only kept his sexuality hidden but kept his soldier life separate from his student life. For instance, Lemer writes about how his friends and co-workers at The Forum, where he worked as an obit clerk, were surprised to learn he was in the military.

Learning the hard way

By the time Lemer was called to Iraq, he had given up on pursuing a career in the military.

Yet he doesn’t regret signing up.

Lemer says his service taught him life lessons about honor, commitment and respect.

“I wouldn’t know who I am as a man without the military … I realized who I was and what I was capable of,” he says. “That deployment helped me realize what I didn’t want to do with the rest of my life and what I did want to do with my life.”

One thing he didn’t want to do for the rest of his life was hide who he is because of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a policy that he said undermined the military.

“So much of what goes on in war involves trusting the man standing next to you,” Lemer writes in the book. “Yet how can the United States have an armed force that’s based on trust and support if there’s also a policy built on secrecy and lies?”

Recently he said, “During a time of war, there’s a military brotherhood, but then you have a policy that keeps people from being who they really are. The soldiers fighting the war have enough going on with combat and getting along with each other … You don’t really need to know if the man or woman next to you is gay. What it boils down to is that it shouldn’t matter, and people are starting to realize that.”

As his deployment grew longer, Lemer became more comfortable with his fellow troop mates and wrote about seeing the “human side” of these people, not just as soldiers.

But in his nearly seven-year stint, he never revealed his sexuality to his friends in the National Guard, though he thinks they may have known. That indifference proves to him an individual’s sexuality doesn’t matter in the military.

He still hasn’t come out to those he served with, mainly because after his deployment ended, he walked away from the military to focus on the next stage of his life: finishing school.

He’s now transitioning from teaching English and humanity courses at Turtle Mountain Community College near Belcourt to teaching English composition at Rochester (Minn.) Community and Technical College.

Work release

When Lemer returned to Fargo-Moorhead in mid-2004, he re-enrolled at Minnesota State University Moorhead and started writing about his experiences in the service.

His adviser, English professor Lin Enger, recalls Lemer as a “very good writer and a personable young man.”

Enger recalls that Lemer’s writing about his time in the military effectively described a “sense of disorientation and confusion.”

Enger hasn’t read any of Lemer’s book.

Lemer’s writings evolved into his master’s thesis at Minnesota State University Mankato and eventually what he calls his “coming-of-age tale.”

“I thought it was really well written for what it was. I think it’s just as strong as a chronicle of what it means to be a young man at war today than a gay memoir,” says Raphael Kadushin, senior acquisitions editor at the University of Wisconsin Press, which published the book.

Kadushin picked “The Last Deployment” for the Living Out series, devoted to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender memoirs.

“Bronson has a very strong, unpretentious voice. He’s not trying to be too poetic,” the editor says. “He really captures the truth, the essence of what it means, everything from the boredom to the fear to the terror of being a soldier oversees. … And then of course in his case, the tension of having to keep a very big secret.”

Final word

Reviews are just starting to trickle in for “The Last Deployment.”

A critic for the San Francisco version of www.examiner.com and

a gay Navy veteran was “surprised” Lemer didn’t discuss his feelings for fellow soldiers, which the critic claimed was the hardest part in his four years of service.

The review did, however, relate to Lemer’s themes of not fitting in.

To Lemer’s knowledge, he’s the first to write about actively serving under “don’t ask, don’t tell.” While the policy is being repealed, Kadushin doesn’t see a rush on gay soldier memoirs, in part because the policy is no longer a “timely and sexy” issue.

“It’s a good time to be talking about it,” Lemer says, adding that there is a lot of work to do after President Barack Obama signed the repeal into law late last year.

While he was six years removed from the service when the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal started in 2010, Lemer said that was a bigger relief than the day he left the National Guard.

“That policy being repealed will be a huge step forward for the modern military,” he says.

Asked what advice he would give a gay teenager considering the military, Lemer says it’s a good option to consider.

He says, “If it gives you some reason to go on an adventure, see the world, escape, it’s a great opportunity to do that.”

Lamb is a reporter at the Forum in Fargo