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Captain goes from vow of silence to serving openly

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AFNS) -- (This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series on AF.mil. These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)

During a three-day vow of silence, Capt. Robert MacArthur had one of the most important conversations of his life.

While on a silent retreat with 25 other people during his fourth year of college at Saint Louis University, Missouri, in 2006, his spiritual director, a Catholic priest, was the only person to whom he was allowed to speak. He also was the first person MacArthur told that he was gay.

MacArthur knew his admission was fraught with complications, especially to a priest, but he said it couldn't have gone better.

"It was amazing," MacArthur said. "The priest said, 'do you know what a huge gift this is?'"

For MacArthur, A 60th Dental Squadron dentist  and the president of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Alliance here, it was the first words in a complicated journey.

MacArthur  realized during his teen years that his ticket to a higher education was via scholarship, something he found through the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps. Realizing he was gay at a time when the service didn't allow service members to serve openly snarled not only MacArthur's future, but his academic career as a double major in biomedical engineering and theology. Revealing his sexuality wouldn't just get him booted from the ROTC, but would leave a sizable monetary debt to Saint Louis.

So, like many service members during the nation's 17-year observance of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, MacArthur chose to remain in the closet.

After admitting the truth to his priest, he later made a six-hour drive home to tell his parents, who also took the news well.

After graduation and commissioning as an officer in 2007, MacArthur landed at Travis AFB in the 60th Communications Squadron as a second lieutenant. He heard stories about how precarious his position was, including one about a service member who was dismissed after being caught at a gay bar. Such stories reaffirmed his decision to stay in the closet.

MacArthur said he would rehearse how he spent his free time, which included visits to LGBT-friendly churches and hanging out with openly gay civilian friends. 

"I learned to be a great chameleon," he said. "I would drive into work every Monday and started rehearsing the story in my head -- 'he' was now 'she.' ... I learned to keep a very strict divide between my work life and my social life."

MacArthur also said his participation in on - and off-duty squadron events deteriorated because he tired of maintaining the facade.

"I did not excel as an Air Force officer and it ate away at the core of my being," he said. "After a while, I just stopped going or I would remain mute when I attended squadron functions."

MacArthur found others, though, through what he called on "underground network of support;" others who shared his secret and knew his hardships.

After acceptance to the Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral Health, MacArthur spent the next few years back in school. In September 2011, the Defense Department repealed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and MacArthur returned to Travis AFB in August 2013 as a dental resident to find an Air Force that spoke of little turmoil as a result of the change, but he also saw a lack of infrastructure for discussing issues related to sexuality.

After holding a focus group about LGBT issues in October 2013, the Travis AFB Airman and Family Readiness Center formed the LGBT Alliance. MacArthur took over as the private organization's first president in November 2013.

Jaye Hurt, Airman and Family Readiness Center community readiness consultant, said MacArthur exhibits a nice balance between fighting for the organization and its people while maintaining respect for those less comfortable dealing with LGBT issues.

"There's the prejudice of the unknown, but when you meet Captain MacArthur, he's a nice guy, he's a funny guy, I could work with him" she said. "He's quite an asset, but at the same time, he doesn't apologize for who he is."

MacArthur said that it's important to him to help spark discussion through education and awareness, as a gay man, the president of the LGBT Alliance and an Air Force officer.

"It's about creating a dialogue," he said.
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