Many times there are difficult obstacles to overcome in life. Not only can these obstructions be mentally and physically challenging to individuals, but they can be painful to discuss with others.
Staff Sgt. Craig West, 693rd Intelligence Support Squadron plans and installation manager, struggled from a young age to cope with certain dynamics in his life. To this day, he still finds it hard to accept the haunting reality of his past decisions.
“We all have things in life that are hard to admit or discuss,” West said. “The hardest thing that I’ve had to admit to myself is that I’m gay and tried to commit suicide.”
Because of West’s upbringing, he felt shameful for being homosexual, because most people in the town he grew up in were traditional and conservative.
“Where I grew up, you were Catholic,” West said. “If you weren’t Catholic, you were Methodist. It was a very conservative area. Being gay in that area doesn’t happen.”
Growing up, West knew he was different from his peers. He felt out of place around everyone in school.
“Going through high school, I wasn’t like the rest of the guys,” West said. “I wasn’t looking at girls.”
Though he didn’t participate in chasing women, no one knew he was gay. In fact, he was terrified to let anyone in on his secret.
“When I was a sophomore my cousin, Allen, came out to my family,” he said. “My father and his two brothers gave him 24 hours to get out of the state. I didn’t want that to happen to me, so I hid it. I hid it so well that no one had a single clue.”
West grew to hate himself. He focused his emotions on school and tried to numb himself from the pain he felt. He knew if he told anyone, they would reject him, especially the ones he loved most — his family.
“I went off to college and buried myself in work,” West said. “I was doing 18 to 22 credit hours a semester, working two to three jobs, doing anything to keep myself preoccupied. I started shutting down my emotions. The only emotion I couldn’t shut down was my hate toward myself.”
Despite depression, West was able to graduate from college. A week after he graduated, he lost his job. West knew he had to do something more with his life.
“I spent the summer bumming around, then joined the Air Force,” West said. “From there I was stationed at Andrews Air Force Base.”
Though West had a steady career, self-hatred lingered and depression continuously progressed.
“It got to the point where if anyone would say anything to me, even ‘Good morning,’ I would just snap,” West said. “It was the kind of anger that was just beyond words. It left me feeling alone. I wouldn’t talk to anyone because, if I did, I’d get thrown out of the military. I didn’t want to get thrown out, because I actually enjoyed my job. I lost myself in that world. The anger finally subsided.”
His happiness eventually diminished, and the frustration returned. He couldn’t help but feel trapped, not able to truly be himself.
“I went to Osan, Korea, and couldn’t hide my anger anymore,” West said. “Seeing other gays and lesbians flaunt it like they hadn’t a care in the world, the anxiety, depression and anger nearly got the best of me.”
Because the military had not yet repealed “don’t ask, don’t tell,” West’s career was on the line if he opened up to anyone. His inability to talk about his homosexuality led him to attempt to hang himself.
“I went to the (base exchange), bought some rope and tried to hang myself in the empty dorm above mine. I don’t remember much of what happened,” he said. “All I remember is a friend of mine cradling my head in his lap and saying, ‘Everything will be OK.’ Thankfully, John stayed with me the entire weekend; he wouldn’t let me be alone. It turned out that John was also gay. He helped me put myself back together. I started to realize that being gay, being different, isn’t such a bad thing.”
With the help of his friend, West was able to see clearer and decided to lead a more enjoyable life. He felt genuinely happier and surrounded himself with positive people.
“I finished my tour at Osan and decided it was time to live life,” West said. “I started going out and actually worked up the nerve to go to a gay bar. I met the most incredible person in my life that night. He made me feel like I mattered and that I could be loved. He helped me put my life back together.”
Jess was the person in whom West confided. They had unconditional love and support for each other. Through the good and bad times, their bond strengthened, until one deployment changed everything.
“While Jess’s unit was deployed I got a call from my friend April, and she told me to sit down,” West said. “I said, ‘April, what’s going on?’ She said, ‘Jess was killed by an (improvised explosive device).”
A flood of emotions filled him as he could recall every moment they spent together.
“I still remember the last dinner that we had together and all the stupid quirky things he used to do,” West said.
West felt he owed it to Jess to attend his funeral. He worked up the courage to contact Jess’s parents to let them know he would be attending. Then, something unexpected happened.
“I called his parents and told them I’d like to attend his funeral,” West said. “I wanted to pay my last respects and say goodbye. Their response: ‘Our son was not a faggot. We will not have one at his funeral.’”
The ridicule caused his depression to flood back. He did the only thing he felt he could do to distract himself; he buried himself in his work again. He soon realized that he couldn’t dwell on his hurt and sadness.
“After Jess’s death, I felt demoralized and depressed. I moped around a lot and at one point I realized, Jess would be kicking my butt up one side and down the other if I didn’t try to go back out there and at least try to live life,” West said. “Slowly, but surely, I got there.”
With a newfound confidence, West was able to find happiness and closure. Soon after, something happened that would change the lives of many.
“Something incredible happened; our president signed the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” West said. “I didn’t believe it was real. I started to think, ‘Well, what if they repeal the repeal?’ It finally hit me when an Airman posted a video on YouTube of himself calling his father and letting him know he was gay.”
With homosexuality being open in the military, West felt he was able to finally start opening up, and the hardest people to tell would be his family.
“I decided I was going to tell the person closest to me, my cousin Delisa. When she came to visit
me, I finally told her what happened at Osan and everything else,” West said. “Next thing I know, I have a right-hook coming at me across my face. Then she gave me a giant hug and said, ‘Everything will be OK.’ Things started really getting better. I didn’t tell my mom and dad at that point, because I was still too worried about their reactions.”
He knew the day would soon arrive where he’d have to tell his parents. After all, he couldn’t keep it a secret forever.
“I finally worked up the courage and called my mom,” West said. “I told her, and she said, ‘Craig, you’re my son. I’m going to love you no matter what. By the way, I already knew. I’ve always known.’ My relationship has gotten better with my mom because of this.”
The acceptance he was finally receiving enabled West to be himself, and he was finally happy.
“When I was stationed in Osan, I met fantastic people there who helped finish what just started,” West said. “I laugh and smile now. Before, I was a very ugly human being.”
If he thought it would be difficult telling his mother, it would be practically impossible to admit it to his father. It took a lot for him to finally work up the courage, but West finally made the call.
“One night I gathered the nerve and called my dad. After I told him I’m gay, he said he was very disappointed in me, then he hung up the phone,” West said. “My dad and I didn’t talk for more than a year. When it was time to leave Osan, I called my mom and told her I couldn’t come home. She asked me why. I said, ‘Think about dad. Think about the family.’ She told me not to worry and that she’d take care of it.”
His father’s reaction far from encouraged West to go home, but this is his family. He knew they’d still love him, though they may not fully agree with his lifestyle. When West arrived home, he came home to an unexpected warm welcome.
“After I got through customs at the airport, I saw my dad crying,” West said. “He said to me, ‘I’m so sorry.’ I had never seen my dad cry before. To this day though, I wouldn’t say my dad’s necessarily OK with it. As he says, I’m still his son so he still loves me, but he doesn’t agree with my ‘choice.’ If I could choose, I’d choose to be straight. There’s so much less crap you have to deal with.”
With the weight of his secret off his shoulders, West is able to live his life the way he wants. Though he struggled to get where he is today, West said he’d rather be here than dead.
“If you get one thing from my story, I hope it’s if you’re in a situation like mine, please don’t harm yourself,” he said. “It’s not worth it. To the family, friends and supervisors: don’t let someone you know feel so alone that they attempt the unthinkable. Talk to them, not at them. Let them know that you care and that someone is there for them. To those of you in my situation: don’t give up hope. Hold on to it, cling to it and fight for it with every ounce of your being. Death is far too permanent.”