by Rhonda Loftis

A week after my 18th birthday I was on my way to Recruit Training Command Orlando, Florida for eight weeks of boot camp. The good news was that I enlisted with one of my very best friends from high school, which, no doubt, made life so much easier.

I’ll digress a minute and talk about holding up my right hand and taking the oath to protect the Constitution for that first time and what that exactly meant to me. The only way I can describe that was a huge sense of pride that was so intense that it was almost overwhelming.  I also felt an immense responsibility to serve and protect our country.

The one thing that was relatively hard in boot camp was the fact that I really missed my family. I was so homesick. It could have been so much worse without my friend there. I gladly made it through boot camp and was given orders to report to Naval Air Station (NAS) Millington, Tennessee for Aviation Storekeeper “A” School (see photo). I had to wait for a billet (a slot in “A” school) to open which gave the United States Navy (USN) the opportunity to assign me to mess cooking duty in the galley for a few weeks as I settled into a routine and the enlisted women’s barracks on base.

It was fall in Millington, so there were flag football games that took place between the men’s and women’s enlisted barracks. When I say between barracks, I meant structurally, and not between men and women. It was strictly enlisted women from the barracks that played. The guys had access to an actual football field! Being somewhat athletic I joined in and played and met many women who were going to the different aviation schools available in NAS Millington.

This began my introduction into the world of what it meant to be gay and be enlisted in the armed forces in the 1970’s. A group of these women had vehicles and would go off base to “party” after the hard-fought games and would always ask me to join them. I never went, even though I really wanted to. They never really mentioned exactly where they were headed, but I knew and I just wasn’t quite ready to take that leap, yet.

After graduation from Aviation Storekeeper “A” school (AKA School) I received orders to NAS Jacksonville, Florida. This was now January, 1974 and I was thrilled to be there. This is where I met Carmen Hix, who, to this day, is still one of my very best pals. She took me under her wing, showed me around the town and slowly guided me through the coming out process. Again, when I talk about coming out, because of the no tolerance policy in the armed forces, this was a very discreet process that just means that I found acceptance within myself, but really didn’t talk about it openly, certainly not to my shipmates (coworkers) and family (with the exception of one of my brothers).

Shortly after “coming out” and starting to meet others on and off base there were rumors of an investigation on base. NIS (Naval Investigative Service) agents would follow their subjects around, on and off base, go to gay bars and take photos. This was not a welcomed situation because it could literally mean the end of a career.

So, the next step was being called into an interrogation with a NIS agent and a female officer. When I say interrogation, that’s exactly what it was — small office, one light over the desk, the agent sitting on one side and the subject and female officer sitting across facing the agent and the questions began. I am not going into detail about what was asked but please use your imagination. I used my Fifth Amendment rights and didn’t answer questions and did not hear from them until they started coming to our softball games a few years later while stationed in Spain!

As the #MeToo movement came to light recently it occurred to me that not only did I have to worry about losing my job for who I dated and loved, but also to endure sexual harassment from male service members both, enlisted and, unfortunately, officers. One occurrence happened at a division party after working hours. It came from my Commander and I felt like I couldn’t report it for fear of retaliation. I was 19. I’m 64 now and I still have not forgotten that moment of humiliation and embarrassment.

Although I had these outside pressures, I never faltered from doing my job and doing it well. The entire time I was enlisted I consistently received excellent evaluations, letters of commendation, several awards for Sailor of the Month and the most unexpected 11th Naval District Naval Woman of the Year, 1983.

It seemed ludicrous for me to always have to look over my shoulder and yet always perform at the highest level. Even though there were many challenges, I didn’t, for one-minute, regret enlisting in the U.S. Navy. I thoroughly enjoyed my time serving my country and would change very little. I met, and still have many good friendships with both women and men. I learned a great skill and have been gainfully employed in the field of supply chain management since the military with no interruptions and attend college on the GI Bill.