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'I Don't Feel Part Of The Military Anymore': Openly Gay Pilot Leaves After Harassment

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A decade after "don't ask, don't tell" ended, one of Naval aviation's few openly gay pilots is on his way out. The Marines substantiated his claims of harassment after an incident following a West Coast Marine Corps ball. It wasn't enough to save his career. KPBS' Steve Walsh has the story.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: For most of his six years in the Navy, Lieutenant Adam Adamski says he felt supported as an openly gay pilot. He can tell you when that changed.

ADAM ADAMSKI: In November of 2019.

WALSH: Adamski is a helicopter pilot for a Navy search and rescue squadron. The group works closely with the Marines. Adamski was invited to a West Coast Marine Corps birthday ball at a local casino. He came back to the hotel room, where the Marines had been holding an after party.

ADAMSKI: When I walked in the door, I knew something wasn't right because the TV in that suite had been moved, like, on the pivot to face the doorway. And I saw my dress whites draped over and around the TV, and there was hardcore gay porn playing.

WALSH: His uniform was wrapped around a TV playing pornography. It didn't feel like a harmless prank. It felt like something else. Some of the other Marines in the squadron wanted to find those responsible, but Adamski says he was getting ready for his first deployment as a pilot. He wanted to shrug it off and let the matter go, but word had spread. Adamski started hearing from other service members.

ADAMSKI: I received numerous calls from people that are in the closet in that squadron, both men and women, and openly gay service members telling me that they are upset and that they don't think the climate, especially for pilots, is a good climate in that squadron and that they think I should report it.

WALSH: The don't ask, don't tell policy ended a decade ago, allowing LGBT service members to serve openly. But a study in the Journal of Sexuality, Research and Social Policy found 59% of service members still didn't feel comfortable coming out to their peers. Sasha Buchert is a former Marine and an attorney with the civil rights organization Lambda Legal. She says changing the law didn't change the culture.

SASHA BUCHERT: It's one thing to have don't ask, don't tell removed. It's another thing to have a culture where people can feel safe being who they are and not have to worry about being discriminated against or harassed, you know? And a lot of this comes from, you know, the top down.

WALSH: Eighteen months after Adamski reported the incident, he still hasn't received final word on his case. His version of events has been substantiated by the squadron commander in charge of the three Marines found culpable and later triggered an inspector general's investigation. Initially, the squadron commander even offered to pull their pilots wings for the incident. Adamski thought that was too severe.

ADAMSKI: I want an in-person apology from all three of them. I want a meeting to which they're there and I can talk to them.

WALSH: He also wanted something on their permanent record. Months went by. Adamski filed an inspector general's complaint after the Marines told their commander that they had made their apologies and repaid the hotel charges for the porn. The incident continued to eat at Adamski.

ADAMSKI: I'm unhappy. I no longer feel like I am an effective leader, an officer, a pilot. I don't feel part of the military anymore.

WALSH: Adamski has been called into his command more than once to address his decision to speak publicly about his case. The Navy says it's up to the Marines to comment. Major Alex Lim, spokesman for 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, says the Marines initially acted quickly on the complaint.

ALEX LIM: Service member Marine sailor in our units are treated with - in a culture of dignity and respect. We want to prohibit any type of activity where these individuals would be harassed.

WALSH: Adamski stopped logging flight hours as his case dragged on. Last spring he had a road accident that made it even tougher to qualify to fly. He was given an option as a Navy officer to retire. Adamski took it. In the next couple of months, his six-year career as a Navy pilot will come to an end but not his quest for some kind of recognition that what happened to him wasn't right.

ADAMSKI: Most people backed down because of all this hassle, and I won't. And I'm not someone that will back down easily or ever.

WALSH: At this point, he says, he has nothing left to lose. For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOUR TET'S "DREAMER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.