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Monday 10 April 2017

Gay and in the Army: Pt3: So many unanswered questions

Posted in: True Stories
By Jay Bennie - 30th April 2013

Corporal Dougie Hughes
Ex-NZ Army soldier Rudy Paul is, like most people, baffled at the death by his own hand of the late Corporal Dougie Hughes while on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan.

From his experience as a mostly closeted gay man in the army nothing adds up for Paul, and the decision by both the army and a coroner to hush up the causes of Hughes' death concern him greatly.

Paul admits that his earlier time in the army was likely different in some ways to Hughes' more recent time, but believes that the changes over the decades should have been to Hughes' advantage.

Ex-Lance Corporal Rudy Paul
"Back then, in my time, you didn't have too many educated people," he says. "A lot of people did what I did and left school with a minimum of education and weren't very worldly at all, had limited experience of everything. Life experience was near zero, Whereas nowadays young people are more aware."

He points to the availability of information through the internet and the increasing visibility of gay people in many areas of public life, though probably not so much in the military before Hughes death in early 2012.

"I can only know what I know from the media," he says, "but if what is reported is true then I cannot understand that with all the information that is out there at everyone's fingertips in recent years, why this happened."

But it's not only the possibility that Hughes may have been struggling in some kind of 'information vacuum' with his sexuality and its effect on his place in the army that has Paul worried. It's also the level of awareness and understanding of his superior officer, a sergeant, who was handling the delicate issue of Hughes' homosexual feelings when the young soldier shot himself. Paul suggests it may have been an issue or situation the sergeant should have referred upwards to his own senior officer.

That sergeant, says Paul, "may have been uneducated in how to deal with it. I don't know what the procedures are now... maybe they've been taught to fight, to be the macho men, and this has come straight out of the blue and the sergeant was ill-equipped to handle it. In that case he should have gone up... from what we've heard I'm not sure that he has gone up to his platoon commander."

Just to re-cap, as it has been reported and has not been denied by any party, Dougie Hughes was feeling an attraction to another soldier which maybe was getting a little obsessive. When he was queried about it by his sergeant he admitted to being gay and admitted to having what might be termed an infatuation with another male soldier of a lesser rank. As a section commander Hughes was in a position of authority over the other soldier and he may have been abusing that position in some way.

According the published and very unauthorised account carried by the Sunday Star Times newspaper, the sergeant brought that other soldier in and, reading between the lines, Dougie Hughes had to repeat what he had said in the presence of that soldier. The other soldier reacted negatively. We don't know the details of that reaction but it was negative.

At the very least "we know it didn't go well!" exclaims Rudy Paul.


This was clearly a highly charged meeting. Is it fair to assume that in the military environment a superior officer would have a much greater control over a junior soldier than, say, a call centre supervisor would have over one of his or her staff? "Yes," says Paul. "A sergeant can actually discipline a corporal, can actually charge him... and charging means just the same as with the police... he can arrest him, can put him in jail... just like that."

Given the military is all-encompasing in a soldier's life, especially when posted overseas on active duty and therefore providing workplace, social, personal, and all other aspects of day to day life, plus any sense of security and future progress, that's a lot of power over someone. "Yes, but you all know that... and Dougie, as a corporal, could do the same to his own subordinates... he could charge them and lock them up. And they can do that to their juniors and the only ones that can't do that are the ones not wearing rank."

"In the army the one directly above you has got a lot of power. He can lock you up and then go through the processes but in the meantime... "

Damage can be done? "Yes."

Each level of authority is answerable to the level above. "But nine times out of ten the person above will take the advice of the person below them," Paul explains. "So, for instance, an officer will go to his 'boss' after the event and say: 'I've disciplined this person for this and this and this,' and his boss will just go: 'Ok'."

Paul seems particularly concerned by the role of the sergeant in the lead-up to Hughes' death. "I can only hope that the sergeant was trained, but it doesn't sound like it." "But," he admits,"it sounds like this was a unique situation."

That uniqueness was because Hughes "actually came out and said that he was gay and that he had affections for a sub ordinate and also because they were on operations," a rarity in the military. So rare the procedures for dealing withn it may not have been defined.

"I don't know if they still have the Armed Forces Discipline Act, or AFDA," says Paul, but he assumes it or something like it is still in place. "It's a set of huge manuals full of operating procedures. But in theatre," such as during active service in Afghanistan, "a lot of those rules change, with other rules added on top. But the rules that overrule everything are common law. If common law and AFDA conflict then common law takes it."

Are New Zealand army sergeants generally well-trained, capable and intuitive managers of people? "A lot of them are... but there are sergeants and there are sergeants," says Paul wryly.

Does it seem reasonable to Paul that the sergeant would have called in the subordinate soldier, the possible complainant and the object of Hughes conflicted attraction, to the meeting in this way?

"To judge that you would need to know the relationship that they had as a platoon," he advises. "Particularly around the sergeant who would be looking after around thirty-odd people along with the platoon commander. Based on the relationship this sergeant had with Dougie and the other guy he may have thought their relationship was strong enough to cope with this. But obviously he misread it... obviously, because Dougie is not with us any more."

Could Dougie Hughes have opted out of having the other soldier brought in and having to repeat his description of his sexuality and his feelings in that way, at that time? "Yes. He could have said to the sergeant: 'I have something to say but it must remain between you and I.' Then it would have depended on the relationship the sergeant had with his troops... but the option is there to ask for confidentiality."


What happened to Dougie Hughes clearly deeply annoys Rudy Paul and he frankly admits it. "Yes, it annoys me. If it is true that Dougie was gay and if it is true that the reason, or one of the reasons, that Dougie shot himself is that it was mishandled, then it annoys me that there are amazing soldiers out there and to be a section commander like Dougie you have to be an amazing person... you have to know all your guys back to front as soldiers, what their expectations are and everything about them..." Paul's voice trails off into silence.

He tries again. "And it annoys me because there aren't that many gay Maori soldiers who have actually come out... because we have also got our own iwi and hapu to deal with depending from where you are from..."

Grasping for words through a cloud of frustration, Paul continues: "I'm just really annoyed that in 2012 and 2013, with everything that's gone on, with the amount of work that's gone on and all the education... there should be no difference between being straight and being gay, and there must surely have been a change within defence since my time there, and yet..."

A long pause... Paul looks up to the ceiling and down to the floor, then takes a deep breath. "That could have been me... that kid could have been me."

But Paul's own difficulties regarding his homosexuality and his army life, which began in the 1980s were at least partly based on his naivity, his ignorance of what it could mean to be gay. Joining up just over a decade ago Dougie Hughes would surely have been less naive than Paul was? "Yes."

Hughes would have gone into the military knowing more about homosexuality because society in general now knows more and everyone is seeing more positive role models - at least outside the military?

"Yes," agrees Paul. "But did he feel safe? Surely he didn't feel safe. There are such a lot of unanswered questions... Was he out to his sergeant? Was he out to his family or any friends or fellow soldiers? Did he have relationships with anyone? Was the other soldier gay or straight? There are too many questions and we can't put a finger on it... but we know this shouldn't happen."

The coroner, anti-gay campaigner Gordon Matenga, reviewed the military investigation and basically said 'fair enough' and closed the book to everyone, including Hughes' family. "If everything was done correctly then why is this not open?" asks Paul. Then he slyly chuckles and asks: "Have we not got a private Bradley Manning?" Manning was the young, gay and disaffected American soldier who downloaded a vast amount of confidential military and diplomatic information and correspondence from the US Army's databases and fed it to Wikileaks, with continuing global implications.

There is a growing sense that the NZ military doesn't like admitting when it has done anything wrong and that in this instance it may be trying to brush the circumstances contributing to Dougie Hughes' death under the carpet. Does that sound like the military Paul knows, or knew? "No. The processes are quite rigorous. But if you are the subject of an army court of enquiry and it is discovered that you have done something wrong, that could be the end of your career."

So is Paul lending his voice in support of Hughes' mother's public call for the results of the court of enquiry to be opened up to public scrutiny? "Yes, definitely. I can't understand why they are hiding it. And why they are saying that it is protect the family when his own mother wants it revealed."

Why does it need to be opened up publicly? "So we can find the truth. If it comes out that Dougie was gay and hadn't told anyone then that is fine. Or if it comes out that Defence is homophobic even though it says it is not then that is fine also, because then we can do something about it. They will do something about it because they will have no choice because we have too many openly gay politicians who I hope would go out and make improvements happen."

What if there were personal psychological or mental health issues underlying Hughes' death? "I don't think there were," speculates Paul, "as that would have been seen as a medical issue and they would probably have been open about that."


"My fear," explains Paul, "is that if we have closeted service people who feel they don't fit in and they actually feel the law is with them and Defence is saying that if they come out they are in a safe working environment... but then they hear about Dougie Hughes, in the infantry, real macho... he came out and now he's dead... " Paul's emotions rise to the surface again.

Does he think the fact that a gay soldier committed suicide following a situation in which his sexuality was an issue and now it's all been hushed up sends a message to other gay soldiers that being gay is actually not ok? "Yes... and it's a horrible thought but it could be that that actually feeds the homophobia that still could be in Defence... that 'he's only another gay guy, shows you how manly he is that he took his own life...' It says that if you're gay and you kill yourself then they just close the books... you're gay, you're not a soldier, you're just a gay. And that's not acceptable for gay people or for straight people. Not acceptable, period."

Does he think that Dougie Hughes would have any strong or even just visible role models to indicate to him that it was ok to be gay and a serving soldier in the military? "From my experience, no. I'm not sure if he would have known of the people who formed Overwatch [the more-recently created group of openly gay Defence Force staff, some of whom marched in the recent Auckland Pride Parade] or if he did he may not have wanted to speak to them because then others would ask why he was speaking to these people - because they also would know that those people are gay. Even knowing there were some gay people in the military he could still have felt a huge sense of isolation."

What does that isolation feel like? "Totally lonely, that you're in a place where you've got all these thoughts going through your head, all this stuff and there's no one you can speak to about it. Or it feels like there's no one. For me there might have been someone but I didn't have the confidence to go and find or talk to someone. I was finding it hard enough coming to terms with my own sexuality so how could I even go and ask someone else?"

Looking back on his own time in the military does then Lance-Corporal Rudy Paul look back with fondness? "I do. I enjoyed being a soldier... it was hard... I didn't realise it at the time but it set me up for life. The management skills that you learn in Defence and that you take into civilian life are phenomenal. But I wish I had had the guts to stand up and be myself... but I didn't know who 'myself' was... I had so much conflict coming to terms with who I am. There are others like drag queens and transsexuals who can't and don't hide, who are right out there. But there was me, hiding and there could have been other gay guys like Corporal Dougie who I could have been an example to... and they might have thought: 'If he can do it I can.' That's my one regret... that I could have been a role model for other gay people and I wasn't.

"I hope that other gay people in the services will come out," Paul says. "That they will become role models, and be strong, that they don't keep doing what I did otherwise our kids will die."

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Jay Bennie - 30th April 2013