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In the Army
A Latino ARMY VETERAN TALKS ABOUT HIS EXPERIENCES IN THE GULF WAR, AND MORE.
By qvStaff Roldán

Joe PerezJOE PEREZ WAS RAISED in the New York’s South Bronx—a place where he says being QV was something that was never talked about. At the young age of 17, he enlisted in the U.S. Army where he served for a total of seven years on both active duty and reserve. This is Joe’s story about serving in the Army—including Desert Shield/Desert Storm.

Joe enlisted in the Army in the spring of 1990 when he was a senior in high school. Among many things, he saw it as a good opportunity to prove to himself that he was straight. Joe explains, “I was going through a lot of changes in my life where I liked boys, but I kept telling myself I was straight. During my senior year, an Army recruiter came to our school and gave me a test. Afterwards, they called me into the office and brainwashed me with, ‘Be a man and join the Army.’ They promised all this money to go to college and I figured, ‘You know what, this just might help me turn straight all the way.’ So I signed up thinking that all these feelings would go away.”

In October 1990, Joe left for the Army and went through boot camp. There, he admits it was a bit tough physically and emotionally. He remembers his drill sergeant screaming homophobic remarks: “He was cursing and saying stuff like, ‘Move it you faggot, you bastard. This is the Army, we don’t want any pussies here, just men.’ He was very hardcore and in-your-face.”

Joe admits that boot camp was tough, and that there were times that he wanted to drop out, but he stuck with it. He felt that if he quit, it might look like a sign of weakness, not to mention, he didn’t want to disappoint his family and friends. So he pushed himself to his limit and eventually, graduated from boot camp in November 1990.

Soon after graduation, he was ready to go home for a week-long visit, but as he was making plans, a big meeting was called where the general told him and the other recruits that there were some problems in the Middle East—and that they had been activated to go to Saudi Arabia to help in fight what was called Desert Shield.

Joe recalls, “I had no idea what Desert Shield was because there wasn’t any media in boot camp.”

That same afternoon, Joe called his mom to tell her about what he had just learned. He says, “I called her up and told her I was going to war—and she lost it on the phone. I lost it, too.”

Joe was forced to stay at camp for another three weeks to undergo further training. And just before going to war, he was granted a weekend pass. The only condition of the pass was that he couldn’t leave the town where the base was, so his mom and several family members came to visit him. They spent the weekend together, and afterwards, they drove Joe back to the base.

Joe recalls the moment he had to say goodbye to his family. He says, “I thought that it might be the last time I’d ever see my family—and hugging them was the hardest thing I had ever done. The last person I said goodbye to was my mom. She hugged me as she was crying. I told her I was scared. I even noticed my uncle was crying. I mean, here was a man I’d never seen cry, and he was there bawling.”

Joe soon found himself on a 23-hour flight to Saudi Arabia with a bunch of other GIs. He says, “We got to Saudi at about 4 a.m. The airport was closed down because of all the bomb threats. We got off the airplane and formed four lines. Then, this guy came over the PA system and said, ‘Welcome to Saudi Arabia and Desert Shield.’ He then started to go through all these rules saying, ‘If you hear one horn steady, don’t hesitate and just put on your gas mask.’ I was thinking, ‘This can’t be real. No way. I’m 18 and I’m in war?’ So he then said we were there to fight the ‘bad guys’ in Iraq.’”

Joe PerezThe first few days in the Saudi Arabian desert were difficult for a self-described city boy like Joe, but he soon adapted to the place and to the other soldiers in his unit. He remembers, “My unit was all these men from Idaho, Chicago, Jersey, Florida. I was the only Puerto Rican in my unit and, at first, it was weird because a lot of the guys were like, ‘Puerto Rican? What’s that?’ And I explained to them it was an island south of Florida near Cuba. It was a real mix of people, but after a while, we all became one big family.”

In Saudi Arabia, Joe was a combat engineer and was given an extremely dangerous job. He explains, “My job was that if we came across a mine field or any type of trap, we’d have to find a way to go in there and either deactivate it or blow it up. To go through a mine field, they would have us get on all fours and take a stick and poke the sand, hoping that there was nothing there.”

Crawling on the ground, looking for mines or any other explosives was something Joe thought he would never have to do. He remembers the first time he found one: “It was about the size of a soda can. I was lucky that I noticed it—because if I hadn’t, I would I have stepped on it and lost my leg. It scared the crap out of me.”

Joe says he committed to being a combat engineer when he first signed up for the Army. He admits he didn’t know what it fully entailed. He says, “Way back in high school, the recruiter pushed this job saying, ‘It’s great. You learn to build bridges, tanks, etc.’ He made it sound so wonderful, so exciting. In looking back, I didn’t build a single bridge in Saudi nor did I touch a single tank. But once you sign the contract, that’s it.”

During his stay in Saudi Arabia, Joe didn’t tell anyone he was QV. He controlled his sexuality. He says, “I had heard a rumor that, since it was war, that if they learned you were QV, they could shoot you. Or if they threw you out, you would get a dishonorable discharge and it would be harder to get a job, go to college, get a loan, or do anything in life. I had all these factors, so I didn’t let anyone know.”

After four and a half months of being in Saudi Arabia, Joe’s unit was withdrawn and a cease fire was soon declared, formally ending the Persian Gulf War. Joe was put on a plane and flown to Fort Dix, New Jersey, where he had to go through quarantine—a week-long process in which doctors performed a number of tests on all returning GIs.

Joe reflects on his experience in Desert Shield/Desert Storm and says, “It felt like years, but I learned a lot. I learned how to deal with fear, life, and death.”

At the end of the week-long process, a huge party was thrown for all the GIs. Joe remembers all the guys getting drunk—himself included. He also remembers that it was the night he had his first sexual experience with another Army guy. He reveals, “Around midnight, we got on a bus headed back to the base. I sat in the back and fell asleep, but I woke up when I felt a hand on my leg. It was the guy sitting next to me. I put his hand back on his leg, but he put it back. Then, he moved his hand up, grabbed me, and started to rub my p*nis through my pants.”

He continues, “When we got to the base, he looked at me, told me to follow him, and took me to the shrubs in front of my barracks and bl*w me. The next day, I saw him and he didn’t say a word to me or look my way.”

Shortly afterwards, Joe finally got a pass to go home. He remembers that day well: “When I got to my mom’s house, she opened the door and hugged me. I started crying. She held me like I was a baby. That was one of the best feelings of love that I ever had. She went and got all the neighbors, and it was really touching. Everyone was like, ‘Wow, he’s a man, he’s grown up now.’ Hearing all these comments was great, but there was part of me that was like, ‘I still like men.’”

After his visit at home ended, Joe’s next set of orders from the Army sent him to Ft. Sill, an army base in Oklahoma. Joe describes it as a small town that was very “churchy.” ...

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