This isn’t the story of a gay American. It’s the story of an American. It’s the story of a young man who joined the U.S. Army at the age of age of 29, who was highly regarded by his peers, and who was killed in action in Afghanistan on February 27, 2011.
It’s also the story of his parents, whom I’ve been blessed to speak with and correspond with via e-mail over the past few months. It’s the story of Jeff and Lori Wilfahrt, who were guests on the weekly podcast I do with Tim Corrimal, The Tim Corrimal Show, back in April and again on Memorial Day weekend, who are two of the most decent Americans you would ever want to know, and who are dealing with the kind of unbearable loss that I have only ever glimpsed at in my life – the loss of a child way before his time.
And it’s a story every American should care about this Fourth of July.
So, yes, Jeff’s and Lori’s son, Cpl. Andrew Wilfahrt was gay, openly so, but as Jeff is fond of saying, that might have been “the least interesting thing about him.” To understand this story, it’s also important to understand that all of the members of Cpl. Wilfahrt’s unit knew he was gay and none of them cared, which says as much about them as it does about Andrew.
This weekend, to its credit, CNN ran a story about the Wilfahrts, the loss of their son, and how it has renewed their dedication to the cardinal principle of America – that all people are created equal:
Rosemount, Minnesota (CNN) -- Andrew Wilfahrt changed his gait in the weeks before going off to basic training. He walked more upright. He bulked up with weights. He spoke with a deep Robocop voice. He acted “manly.”
Through the eyes of his parents, Jeff and Lori, it was all a bit strange.
This was the boy who told them he was gay at 16 after being confronted with exorbitant bills from Internet chat rooms. Who lobbied for gay rights in his high school and escaped the fists of football players when hockey players came to his rescue. Who had the courage to wear pink and green even after his car was spray-painted with “Go Home Fag!”
All his parents ever wanted was for Andrew to be Andrew.
At 29, he sat his mom and dad down at the kitchen table and told them his life was missing camaraderie, brotherhood. “I’m joining the Army,” he said.
The news surprised them. Why would Andrew enter the military, where he’d be forced to deny a part of who he is?
He was a lover of classical music, a composer, a peace activist, a math genius. He studied palindromes, maps, patterns, the U.S. Constitution, quantum physics.
It had never really crossed the minds of his left-leaning parents. Yet, just as they’d done with all three of their children, they supported him. It wasn’t easy. It became dreadfully painful.
When their son wound up in Afghanistan in July 2010, Jeff awoke early each day to Google “Kandahar.” He tracked every soldier killed in the far-off land.
Then, on February 27, 2011, at the same oak table where Andrew said he was joining up, the Wilfahrts learned their oldest child was gone.
Although his parents initially were concerned about the cause of Andrew’s death, knowing the military can be a hostile environment for gay soldiers, they learned that Andrew was killed on a mission when the vehicle he was in hit an improvised explosive device. And they learned that he used his body to shield his fellow soldiers, sacrificing his own life to save theirs.
Perhaps that’s not altogether surprising, given the character of the man:
Cpl. Andrew Charles Wilfahrt, 31, is believed to be the first gay U.S. soldier to die in battle since President Obama signed the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the policy forcing gays in the military to hide that part of their lives or risk being kicked out.
He was also among the smartest in the half-million force, scoring a perfect score on his aptitude test, a feat the Army says is rare.
Andrew was so well-liked his comrades named a combat outpost for the soldier with the infectious smile. COP Wilfahrt sits 6 kilometers from Kandahar. To his buddies, it is not named for a gay soldier, but for one who fought with valor.
But the story doesn’t end with an IED explosion in Afghanistan, or with the posthumous honor of having a combat outpost named after Cpl. Wilfahrt, undoubtedly the first and only COP named after an openly gay soldier. Because the Wilfahrts chose not to end the story that way:
In a state that has produced GOP presidential hopefuls Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty – who have made careers fighting gay marriage – these parents of an American hero present a major challenge to the establishment.
They’ll take their battle [for marriage equality] to the Supreme Court, if that’s what it takes. To the Wilfahrts, denying gays the right to marry is discrimination against a group to which their son belonged.
On a recent spring day, the couple stood outside the Capitol while lawmakers inside prepared to debate marriage. The legislators voted, largely along party lines, to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot for November 2012 to define marriage as solely between a man and woman.
Jeff had never spoken much publicly before eulogizing his son. He began by telling the crowd, “If I hold my finger up, I’m gonna be crying. When you see that, I need to pause.”
A few minutes later, his finger dangled in the breeze. His voice cracked. “I challenge the one-man, one-woman champions to define manliness or womanhood. Will you as a human being, as an American, as a Minnesotan, be asked to open your trousers or to have your skirt lifted when applying for a license to marry?
“ ... I hope my son didn't die for human beings, for Americans, for Minnesotans who would deny him civil rights.”
On this day, in the grandstands of the [Twin Cities] pride parade, the Wilfahrts will celebrate their son’s identity as both a gay man and a soldier. It’s the type of event that would stun Bachmann and Pawlenty: More than 100,000 gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders and straights gathered in their home state, celebrating life and obeying the law. A Minneapolis police car led the parade, two officers waving to the jubilant crowd.
The night before, Jeff, 58, and Lori, 56, wondered if they were doing the right thing by coming. Their son was so private, would he want his mom and dad to speak out?
Within minutes today, they get their answer. “Thank you for you and your son’s service,” a man says, offering a hug to Lori. Tears well in the parents’ eyes.
Another stranger, Laurie Kermes, holds Lori’s hand. “Your son did a lot. He’s not going to be lost in vain.”
Soon, a float goes by carrying two poster-sized photographs of Andrew in Army camo. “That’s our boy!” Jeff says.
He and Lori embrace. Their heads tilt toward the ground, two exhausted parents missing their son.
Twenty years ago I watched my parents bury my brother John, and just two years ago I watched my mother say her final goodbye to my brother Tom (by that time, I had kids of my own); and all I can say is, it’s a thing of unfathomable sadness. That Jeff and Lori Wilfahrt have managed to turn that unfathomable sadness into this incredible force for good is a testament to who they are. If we’re any kind of Americans at all, if were any kind of human beings at all, we’ll join with them to change our country for the better. Because in the end it always changes for the better.
Happy Fourth of July.
© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.