The tumultuous story of two gay soldiers forging a powerful friendship before, during and after Don't Ask Don't Tell. Brett and Drake battle for love and freedom to survive three wars and one exhausting policy.
They adopt wildly different strategies to outmaneuver the silent adversary, yet each one rises deftly toward lieutenant colonel, inside the great American war machine as it rumbles through misadventures in the Middle East.
Two harrowing love stories — at war.
Written by a former gay infantry grunt who has followed these gay soldiers for 22 years, half with them in hiding. Full bio. Soldiers First tells the story of three decades of social upheaval and military adventures through the lens of these two gripping lives, and the men and women they loved.
Coming in 2023
This cover is a temporary mock-up
Me, as a young soldier at Fort Benning, when we saw no more wars on the American horizon. (I was infantry drill corporal in my BDUs, and new lieutenant in my dress blues.)
In the home stretch of writing the soldiers book, Parkland happened. I interrupted work on this project to follow those amazing MFOL kids. It started as a 5-week project for Vanity Fair, but turned into a book.
HarperCollins and I are both dedicated to this gay soldiers book, and I'm back on it.
The entrance to Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Both Brett and Drake played a significant role at Guantanamo, a decade apart. Photo by Dave, 2014.
West Point cadets practicing the brutal IOTC Obstacle Course during my visit with Brett in 2016, three decades after he graduated. (US Military Academy.) Photo by Dave.
Me inside a Guantanamo Bay Camp X-ray "interrogation room" in 2014. This is where the Guantanamo torture was conducted. (Photo by a fellow journalist. I forgot which. Sorry!)
Brett served the army in three wars: Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gulf War. Drake deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, plus hotspots in Kuwait City, Cairo, Caracas, Port-au-Prince, and Dongducheon, Korea. They each have led extraordinary careers on the front lines of thirty years of U.S. military intervention. Both played significant roles at Guantanamo Bay, a decade apart. This sprawling story will take you inside remote foreign lands, grubby army towns, and senior Pentagon meetings, seen through the eyes of these two soldiers and a string of boyfriends, locked in a struggle with an invisible foe.
My two protagonists served on army active duty before, during and after Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and through the nation's full evolution on gay marriage, from zero to 50 legal states (after DOMA ended). Their perceptions of what they were up against changed drastically over two decades. I take you inside their world, as it evolved: believing they were ordinary army soldiers, and then the curve ball that hit them and slowly transformed their careers. Their lives weave in and out of experience with lesbians, enlisteds and sailors, airmen and Marines, but I do not attempt to document the policy's impact on every gay community. This is an intimate story of two fascinating army soldiers — and the men, and occasionally women, they loved.
Drake and Brett bring you remarkably different perspectives. Drake is a gruff, brash good ole’ boy, with a hulking linebacker body and a wicked sense of humor, wielded in a fading Tennessee twang. Brett is a short, muscular Korean with a massive barrel chest and bubbly disposition, fond of chatting up truck drivers and clerical staff alike, and amusing them with bad puns. Brett immigrated as an infant, and as he grew up he helped raise his younger siblings, while his parents ran a deli in Queens and import shop in the Bronx. West Point turned his head around, taught him how much he had to overcome as an Asian soldier, unaware he had much bigger hurdles ahead. Battle can affect a soldier many different ways, but in Drake's case, decades of internal struggle in and out of a slew of war zones mellowed his disposition and taught him new concepts of what it means to lead.
I met them at the height of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, researching a policy piece for Salon. I had been a gay soldier before the policy, but wanted the perspective of someone serving. All the gay advocacy groups tried to find a service member to work with me, but all failed. They told me it was hopeless — no one had ever done that; it wasn’t safe.
I knew where to find them. Colorado Springs is ringed by military bases, so I drove down there on a Saturday night. I met Brett the first night, and he took me inside their world, encouraging others to speak to me, everything off the record at first. I met several gay soldiers, marines and airmen, and it took months to win some of them over, but several agreed. I was stunned that their lives — and the ways they maneuvered about the policy — was nothing like I had expected, even as a former gay soldier, and nothing like I had read about. They had no voice, no way to tell the world.
My instincts told me almost instantly that story of their lives was so much more interesting than another policy piece, and my editor, Joan Walsh, heartily agreed. So I spent five months on an 11,000-word ethnographic story than ran in two parts in June 2000. For complicated reasons I explored in the piece, the policy paradoxically encouraged gay sportsex, but made a meaningful relationship nearly impossible. What all the guys craved, and the policy denied them, was a boyfriend. So we called the piece, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Fall in Love.” I still wince typing that 17 years later. You can read parts 1 and 2 via the links in the box. It won the GLAAD Media Award for best online story of 2000.
I eventually chose three captains with extraordinary stories — two army, one marines — as the primary focus of the Salon piece. It ran with an editor’s note explaining that we had changed their names and certain identifying characteristics. I worked with the guys and SLDN to insure we had done that safely. The guys were fully on board, though they got extremely nervous as publication date approached. It created quite a stir at their posts and throughout the military — (Drake said it still came up when he was in Iraq years later) — but no one ever figured them out. They will reveal their identities in the book.
This book has two protagonists, who I met in January 2000, in a gay bar in Colorado Springs. They were army captains, in hiding, but felt safe inside. I have been following them ever since, observing one stunning twist after another in their love lives and army careers, at close range. I’ve never had an opportunity like this as a journalist, and I hope it brings a sense of intimacy to to the book. I have gotten to know them well, and they have been incredibly candid. (It took Brett’s Asian mom 15 years to open up all the way.)
Evolution to Book
I stayed close to the guys. Drake and Brett's lives took the most amazing turns, so I focused the book on their stories, which spans three decades, across five continents. We kept up by email, phone, and countless visits, including so many major life events. While I knew them, they each deployed to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and played significant roles at Guantanamo Bay, ten years apart.
Brett and Drake maneuvered the policy rather masterfully in the short-run, but certain choices lit the fuse on career bombs that would erupt more than a decade later. They each found boyfriends, but had polar experiences in that realm, both harrowing, in vastly different ways. It was a harrowing ride for each of them — and the Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage brought more changes. I finished Columbine nine years after the Salon pieces, and I knew their story cried out for more.
Researching and writing Soldiers First has been my primary occupation since finishing Columbine. HarperCollins enthusiastically signed on to publish, and I'm working with their great executive editor, Gail Winston. I am making good progress and will post updates as I get closer to finishing.
Research has taken me to their various homes around the U.S., two trips to West Point, a week in Guantanamo Bay, and three trips shadowing Drake at the Pentagon. I have published several journalism pieces on the military, gays and gay soldiers and transgender in the process, featured in the box. Prior to meeting them, I had written about the military and gays in the military for Slate and Salon, and spent considerable time at the Air Force Academy. I've included pictures from these trips throughout the page.
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Inside West Point's Washington Hall, the massive dining hall that seats all 4,000 cadets. (U.S. Military Academy.) Photo by Dave.
Me at West Point U.S. Military Academy with the gay-straight alliance group Spectrum in 2016. Left and right are with cadets; middle with our first out gay Secretary of the Army, Eric Fanning, and Allyson Robinson, a 1994 graduate and transgender activist. Photos by Brett and Dave.