He would brag to his fellow soldiers about his girlfriend all the time. There was just 1 problem.

Eric March Curator:

If — like me — you're a sucker for the very small human stories behind huge historical events, you'll want to hear this from Lt. Dan Choi, who chained himself to the White House fence in 2010 and helped bring down "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" less than a year later. Make sure you check out 2:18 for his amazing love story, 6:30 for what happened when he came out to his parents, and 10:40 for the heartwarming, totally unexpected email he received from an Iraqi doctor. But really, you'll want to watch the whole thing.

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Narrator: Please welcome Lt. Dan Choi.

Dan Choi: It's hard to imagine just about two years ago I was in Iraq, south of Baghdad. An area called the triangle of death. In Arabic we call it [foreign language]. It sounds a little bit more death-like an Arabic sometimes.

I was in my Humvee and it was a hot, sweltering, and dusty afternoon. Normally we would hear the call to prayer about this time. We're over watching a mosque. We thought it was a Sunni mosque and from the minaret I hear [foreign language] Mohammed [foreign language] and then my gunner taps me on my shoulder and says, "Lieutenant that sounds a little bit different, can you translate that?"

I say, "Yeah it does sound a little bit different." [foreign language] Ya Allah, Ya Muhammad, Ya Ali, Ya Mahdiya. It was not a call to prayer. It was a Shia political rally.

You see having a degree from West Point in the Arabic language sometimes helped out because I could translate, understand what people were saying.

Overall, our mission in Iraq was very simple. You see, you go to war, you find the terrorists, and you kill them. Very simple stuff, some days we would be called upon to rehabilitate the water system or the sewers or the electricity.

Very simple. Other days we would bring together tribal leaders, and have a reconciliation meeting. We would install a democratic form of government in a war zone where people want to kill each other for the political party that they're in. All very simple stuff. All the more simple when you don't know what language Iraqi people are speaking.

So I felt that my being able to understand and translate did help a little bit in [foreign language]. Well, I came back from Iraq, and I was 27 years old, and I was seeing for the first time about two years a lot of my friends and family, just feeling good, but there was something missing in my heart.

For 27 years I never even understood love, I never had a love relationship. Never had a girlfriend, until I met Martha and I just couldn't stop talking about Martha. Martha this and Martha that. I would go into work and my sergeant would say, "Son there's something wrong with you, because you are so happy all the time, and you cannot be so happy in the army." But I could not stop talking about her.

I had so many questions. I asked some of my soldiers, my subordinates, I said, "What does it mean when your girlfriend gives you red roses or white roses. What does it mean when you get chocolates? And on your birthday when you get this teddy bear what does that mean? It wasn't just any teddy bear it was this bright red teddy bear with hearts all over it. I didn't know how I was going to tell my soldiers about this, but I needed to understand what this all meant.

I was asking my soldiers, see, for me love was an altogether different battlefield. I needed them to translate some of these things that were going on. Well, I continued and when I came home I knew that I wanted everybody to know that I finally knew what love was, but they wanted to meet Martha.

They say, "She sounds so great." My sister said, "I want to know, I want to meet her because you always say that she's so hot and I need to verify that, is she really that hot?"

There was a problem see this woman Martha didn't exist, actually. There was no woman. I didn't have a girlfriend. I had a boyfriend. His name was not Martha. His name was Matthew and under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in the military, I wasn't allowed to talk about love.

Matthew wasn't allowed to exist, but for a decade I was serving under this policy and it was OK. I had no problem with this. I never wanted to come out of the closet. My dad is a Southern Baptist minister. I would simply wonder, how was this Korean a Southern Baptist minister, but it happens.

My mom, she's a baby nurse at the maternity ward in local hospital. I will translate that for you. She wants to have a lot of grandchildren. More particular, she wants to have a lot of Korean grandchildren.

So I wasn't going to tell them, I was comfortable, I was hiding. It was all right. Not an issue, until I finally understood what love was. See now I understand with the movies are talking about. Now I understand what the love poems are talking about. Now I understand all the love songs on the radio. I understand what Beyonce was singing about. I would say I understand what Lady Gaga sing about, but I actually don't really know what she's singing about yet.

And I said, "Well this is making me a complete person. I understand so much that's the world's making me a better soldier. I understand what my soldiers are going through. I understand the emotions that are involved. I'm a better person for it. Why should I lie about this?"

So I told my mom, I told my dad, "I joined the Gay Men's Chorus," and it was in a packed how sort of like this. I would be singing and I would look up for my music and I said, "Oh my god. You are all gay. Really you're all gay, all of you?" It was like my community. This was my family. This was in lot of ways my team or my military unit except in this unit or team I didn't have to lie and nobody had to hide who they are.

Well, I met a lot of other people that I should have met for a long time. I'd met other veterans who were gay, combat veterans who were gay. West Point graduates who were gay just like me, and we got together we talked about all of the things for love relationships and we said, "Why should we lie about this, especially, when we learned from the first day of our training honesty and all those values. Why should we lie?"

Well, we continued to tell and I told on radio, I told on TV. My dad finally couldn't ignore it anymore. He wasn't able to deny it when I started talking to the Korean Conservative Christian radio stations. Sooner or later, one of the people in his congregation called him and he said, "You know I don't think your son's really gay. I think he is just part of this gay agenda." It might have been Pat Robertson himself, but we sat down in the room as I was living with them as I came out of the closet to them. My dad told me, "This is a just a phase. We know you are not a gay. Now this is a big shame. You have no shame? This is a bigger sin, a big sin, number one sin, number one sin." The number one sin is, sometimes I have to translate where I have subtitles.

The number one sin and I had to respond to him I said, "Dad, I sat through all of your sermons. I went to church, grew up in this house, and you told me that the greatest sin is not to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. And you said that the greatest command is too love your neighbor as yourself." I became a preacher in a lot of ways and I remembered the other commands and said, "Honor your father and your mother that I am trying to honor you. How can you have any honor when all of your love, relationship is based off as deception? You talk about saving face and shame, but how can you save any face if you have no integrity?"

So we continued to tell and a lot of people pointed out to me that as a soldier, as an officer you're not supposed to break the rules. You have "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" you violated the rules when you told your mom, you violated the rules when you told your dad, and you sure have violated the rules when you told Rachel Maddow.

But I remind him on the very first day at West Point over a decade ago, before we learned how to stand at attention, before we learned how to salute, before we learned how to march in step, before we learned how to execute orders that were given to us before we got a lot of push-ups for when we failed to execute those orders. And some of got more push-ups than others, but before we even did a single push up we learned the honor code. Very simple. You would not lie, and you would not tolerate those who lie.

So why would we follow the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" code when it makes us break the honor code. We continued to tell eventually the army caught up with me and sent me a letter said very plainly very coldly, "Sufficient basis exists to kick you out because homosexual admission is moral and professional dereliction." I thought to myself, "Morally derelict for telling the truth, professionally derelict for refusing to lie."

Well the letter had a couple of options that told me. Well you can just go away. You could resign. Lawyers told me, "You would probably get honorable discharge". For me that's very important because my time in service, I'm a 50% disabled veteran and I would like to hold on to some of those medical benefits, if I'm kick out.

The other option was to fight it. Try to stay in the military, maybe even risk all of the benefits that I have accrued. I learned from the very first days of my training something else. If you are a soldier and there's a fight worth fighting for you jump in, you stand up for yourself, so we did. I collected over 300,000 letters of support from around the country and around the world.

If you thought that letter from the army was bad, you should have heard some of the language that these people were using. Don't use up my taxpayer money. Kick out Arabic speaker West Point graduate. He's going to go back to the combat zone.

People from my unit, people that I had served with wrote, "Don't assume that we are all homophobic like we're all uncomfortable with the truth. We went to war. Don't insult us like that".

One of the most poignant letters that I got, was a message in form of email from an Iraqi doctor and he said, "I was watching you on YouTube and it was a CNN interview and I heard that you might lose your benefits, but you came to my country, and you rehabilitated, and you fixed my hospital. If your country that sent you to my country is not going to give you medical care, you can come to South Baghdad any day."

"[foreign language] and I will give you treatment because brother I know that you're gay, but you sacrificed. You're still my brother, you are still my friend and it would be and honor. I would consider a duty to pay you back somehow. He also said, "I love when you recite this poem at certain rallies [foreign language]."

You are free. You are free before the noonday sun. You're free before the moon and you're free before the stars, and you are free where there is no moon or sun, where there isn't a single star in the sky.

But you are a slave, you are a slave to the one you love because you love him, and you are a slave to the one you love because he loves you back. I know a lot about freedom I have learned a lot. In fact, on my West Point ring it says that we're that protectors of the free.

I've been to war and now I understand love, and with all of its consequences, of all of those things that are worth fighting for love is certainly worth fighting for. Love is worth it.

Thank you.

There may be small errors in this transcript.

Original story performed by Lt. Dan Choi at Made to Be Broken: Stories of Disobedience, hosted by The Moth in Portland, Oregon. The Moth is the purveyor of amazing stories on the regular, and you can follow them on Twitter and subscribe to their YouTube channel. For more background on Lt. Dan Choi's epic heroism, here is some video, and here is some reading. Thumbnail posted to Flickr by The National Guard, used under a Creative Commons license.

Jul 21, 2014

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