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City salutes LGBT military veterans in Daley Plaza ceremony
Video below
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond
2017-06-15

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When U.S. Navy veteran travis (preferred name spelling) began a rendition of "America the Beautiful" on June 14, his powerful voice stopped people who had been spending their lunchtimes at Daley Plaza in downtown Chicago in their tracks. They pulled out their iPhones and began taking videos or remained frozen in rapt attention.

The song was part of the annual salute to the service of this country's LGBT veterans and another in a growing legacy of moments demonstrating that the passionate sacrifice of those forced to live in the shadows for love of country can never be ignored.

The meaningful event was hosted by the City of Chicago Commission on Human Relations, The Chicago chapter of the American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER, celebrating its 25th anniversary) and the Chicago Veterans Advisory Council.

The pride of LGBTQ veterans was celebrated with dignity, ceremony and honor that began with the presentation and posting of the colors and concluded with the haunting sound of "Echo Taps," as played by Lakeside Pride Marching Band members Susan Jones and Melissa Terrell, while U.S. Air Force veteran Ed Wosylus laid a wreath at the Daley Plaza's eternal flame.

By then, those people who began as curious onlookers had surrounded the semicircle of veterans who stood to attention as the bugle call, unmistakably identified with valor and remembrance, resonated across the plaza.

Conversation stopped. People bowed their heads. There was a mutual understanding between participants and audience of why everyone was there, the battles which have been fought and those that lie ahead even seven years after the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT).

In reading the proclamation by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, City of Chicago Commission on Human Relations Chair and Commissioner Mona Noriega recalled those battles throughout the history of America while honoring LGBT veterans "of diverse yet convergent backgrounds [who] have fearlessly defended the principle of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of these United States through their service in the United States Armed Forces side by side with their heterosexual counterparts."

The proclamation also made note of both the "first federally approved LGBTQ veterans monument on federal land at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Illinois," dedicated on May 25, 2015, and the memorial honoring LGBTQ veterans in the heart of Chicago's Lake View neighborhood unveiled May 29, 2017.

Joining Noriega on stage were veterans representing the United States Coast Guard, Navy, Air Force, Army and National Guard.

Before introducing them, AVER President and Navy veteran Jim Darby remembered the organization's founding a quarter-century ago.

"I put an ad in the Windy City Times asking if someone would like to form a gay veteran's association," he said. "I'm a member of the American Legion. Many are members of the VFW [Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S.], VAV [Veterans Assisting Veterans]; the whole alphabet soup but we found out along the way that we really weren't very welcome. As a matter of fact, they were just putting up with us and that was a good enough reason to found our own organization."

After accusing former President Bill Clinton of "chickening out" by instituting DADT instead of lifting the ban on LGBTQ service members, Darby starkly illustrated the results of the 17 years it remained in place.

"That policy resulted in the throwing out of 15,000 LGBT service members," he said. "What a waste to this country."

In her remarks, keynote speaker U.S. Navy Petty Officer First Class Emily Siefken remembered the history which surrounded and affected her as she grew up in rural Iowa before joining the US Navy at age 17.

"My grandpa was a hero to me," she said. "As someone who did not talk about his life in the army, Vern 'Bad Ass' Bud confided in me about his time commanding an infantry unit during the height of the Korean war; stepping in for officers who had been killed in particularly bloody offenses. He recounted trenches twenty feet deep and ten feet wide completely filled with bodies that were either dead or lay dying."

"In small, religious towns, men like my grandfather are revered," Siefken noted. "They are almost holy models of sacrifice; about as close to bleeding on the cross as any human would likely get. Women, historically, do not fit this model."

Yet, Siefken is the veteran of two wars in the Middle East who was trained in CCTV and satellite communications repair. She worked with Special Forces and Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) teams. She is a former drill sergeant for six male/female integrated divisions and the creator of numerous groundbreaking artistic works including 2007's Here/Not There which paid visceral honor to female casualties of the Iraq war.

"Each of us recognized our worth to each other," Siefken said as she fondly recalled her fellow service members, particularly those who came from economically challenged backgrounds. "We worked together, shared resources in order to be successful; to survive."

DADT led to an end to Siefken's service in 2003.

"The circumstances around my departure are fairly harrowing and sad but I prefer to look on the bright side wherever possible," she said. "Comradery and love are the bright side. I found my fellow veterans floating adrift. We connect over a common goal; to help each other navigate civilian life. Only one half of one percent of the entire population of US citizens have given up their youth and economic potential to serve this nation."

"We have honor, courage and commitment," she added. "Historically as a nation we have few examples of comradery spanning race, class, religion, sexual orientation. This is where veterans, public servants and those interested in the well-being of someone other than themselves can truly make a mark. I believe the concept of what it means to be a hero has fundamentally changed. Who would have thought that our LGBTQ community could be the 'shining city on the hill' referenced by [Ronald] Reagan or that our collaborative prism would cast a gloriously colorful path for this driftless nation to follow?"

For more information on AVER, visit aver.us .



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