The desire for a better life led Black, gay veteran Rob Smith to risk his own. Smith, a then-17-year-old Akron, Ohio, native, enlisted in the U.S. Army in October 1999, in order to be the first in his family to get a college education and escape his hometown.
He soon found himself in the midst of the Iraq War.
"I was so young, when I joined," Smith said. "I wasn't thinking of myself as gay."
His new book, Closets, Combat & Coming Out: Coming Of Age As A Gay Man In The Don't Ask, Don't Tell Army," is a window into Smiths 5 years of military service.
"I had known for a while that there was a story that needed to be told," Smith said. "I know that it's very important as LGBT people to put our stories out [there], because no one was going to do it for us."
He gave a shout out to Bayard Rustin: a Black gay civil-rights hero who, until recently, was unsung.
"The amount of bravery and guts to be himself was amazing," Smith said.
Rustin, who was openly gay, organized the 1963 March on Washington and fought against HIV/AIDS discrimination in New York City shortly before his 1987 death.
Smith hopes his book sends, at least, conveys "the realization that [LGBT] people were always there. It's so easy for our history be erased," he said.
A harsh reality forced him to confront not only being gay, being gay in the military.
Discovering PFC Barry Winchell's July 1999 murder rendered Smiths naivete null and void. He read a Rolling Stone Magazine story just before beginning his duty.
"That's when I made the choice to serve under DADT and do what I needed to do," Smith said. "It was very damaging and isolating."
A fellow soldier beat Winchell to death after learning Winchell was in love with Calpernia Adams. The movie Soldier's Girl chronicled the tragic events. Aside from worrying about homegrown homophobes, Smith faced hatred of a different variety on foreign soil.
"When I was serving overseas, I wasn't seen as American," Smith said. "I was seen as an oppressor."
He was deployed three weeks after the initial invasion of Iraq. So, Smith faced a hostile people, which he was allegedly liberating.
Smith questioned the war and felt guilty for fighting it, but kept his feelings in check. The irony of a Black man being seen as an oppressor wasn't lost on him. However, he didn't dwell on it.
"It crossed my mind a little bit ... but I was too concerned about staying alive," Smith said.
And, even in the face of war, he maintained a respect for human life. Smith said he set a certain boundary and never crossed it. Smith didn't follow fellow soldiers intent on gawking at the opposition's casualty.
He served as a Bradley armored vehicle driver and mechanic for five years, before being honorably discharged. Making the transition to civilian life has not been easy. Smith suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and worked with a therapist for four years. While he stressed sharing his struggle could help destigmatize veteran-centered mental health care, Smith made one thing clear.
"I don't want to put out the idea that all veterans are damaged people," he said. "But [they] should be all tuned up and ready to go at all times."
Sharing his truth, Smith said, inspired a gay Vietnam veteran to contact him, who chose to confront his issues. With that said, Smith is involved with The Soldier's Project, which offers free and confidential mental health care services to veterans.
Campaigning to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" had the biggest impact on Smith. He said it allowed him to come to terms with what his service meant. It would also bless him with another heroformer U.S. Army Lt. Dan Choi.
"[Choi] was one of the first people, who taught me what it means to use your voice to affect change," Smith said.
He also reflected on the late U.S. Army Sgt. Perry Watkins. Watkins' lawsuit against the U.S. Army led a federal appellate court to deem the government's ban on GLBT people serving in the military unconstitutional. Watkins died from AIDS in 1996 at age 47. Late U.S. Air Force Sgt. Leonard Matlovich, who died of AIDS at 44 in 1988, challenged the ban before Watkins.
"The powers that be decided [Watkins] was not the right person to put out front [then], Smith said. Sometimes, the powers that be don't want them to be a representative."
Watkins drag past and sexual activity with fellow service members made him a liability. Smith said, speaking about himself, being a Black enlisted service member made him a liability. Publishing the book, he said, provides him an opportunity to flip the script.
"I want to challenge the idea of what a soldier is supposed to look like," Smith said.
Straight white men, according to Smith, dominate the books by veterans landscape. With that said, he also believes there should be no one way to fight for justice and equality. Smith said he was shunned by certain organizations for not campaigning properly. That included getting arrested at the White House.
"We do ourselves a disservice when we tell people that they can be an activist, but only do it this way," Smith said.
Although Smith, Choi, Watkins and Matlovich's efforts helped end DADT, Smith said the policy is not exactly dead.
Transgender soldiers still can't serve openly, he added. The U.S. military still has no discrimination policy, which includes sexual orientation, in place. Many discharged under DADT aren't receiving their earned benefits.