This Memorial Day weekend, we remember CPL Andrew Wilfahrt, killed February 27, 2011 in Kandahar City, Afghanistan. Andrew is believed to be the first gay soldier to fall in battle after Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) was repealed. Today his legacy is On Our Radar.
In the usual course of human events, fathers leave a legacy to their sons. Some leave money. Some leave the family business. Some leave a passion for baseball or fishing or rebuilding old muscle cars. In the Kennedy family, the fathers passed on the desire to run for public office. In the McCain family it was military duty. But in the case of CPL Andrew Wilfahrt, it is his father, Jeff Wilfahrt, who was left a legacy. Since his son’s death, Jeff has become a fierce advocate for LGBT equality, and this November, the voters of Minnesota District 37B will have the opportunity to send him to St. Paul as their Representative.
Andrew Wilfahrt came out to his family at age sixteen. He had run up a whopping Internet chat room bill and his parents wanted to know why. The answer came as a quite a surprise. Psychologists say the single biggest factor in whether a gay youth becomes a successful adult is whether he has the support of his parents after he comes out. Andrew was one of the lucky ones. His parents, Jeff and Lori, who describe themselves as “lefties,” reacted to the idea that their firstborn son was gay a lot better than they reacted to the chat room bill. Andrew always knew he had them in his corner.
When he came to them at age 29, and said he had decided to join the army, Jeff and Lori were stunned. For one thing, it meant going back in the closet, since DADT was still in effect. But Andrew told them he wanted to go so some man with a family wouldn’t have to. He tried to explain the yearning he felt for camaraderie. He told them he felt a need to be a part of something larger than himself. Jeff was more accepting of the idea than Lori, but in the end, they wanted for Andrew whatever he wanted for himself, so they gave him their blessing.
SPC Kevin Gill, one of Andrew’s platoon mates, told a Wilfahrt relative that minutes before Andrew was killed their patrol had been besieged by children seeking candy. Andrew dug into his pocket and passed out a few pieces, then shooed the kids away for their own safety. Their patrol traveled about another 100 meters, beneath a bridge they had walked under dozens of times before, when three IEDs were remotely triggered. One killed Andrew. The one under the feet of SPC Gill didn’t detonate. Andrew’s parents believe Gill’s life was saved that day not only by that fortunate misfire, but because Andrew’s body bore the brunt of the other explosions, keeping the shrapnel from SPC Gill.
I’m sure he had no idea at the time, but Jeff Wilfarht’s new life began the very day the Army came to his house to notify him Andrew had been killed. The officer and chaplain sat across from Jeff and Lori at the same table where their son had broken the news that he was enlisting. Jeff had just been dealt the cruelest blow a father could receive. No one would have blamed him if he had been reduced to tears or struck speechless. No one would have blamed him if he raged against the war or the government or God. But Jeff Wilfahrt rose above his pain and acted on behalf of his son. He insisted he be put in touch with someone from Andrew’s unit. His first act as a “gay advocate” was to make sure Andrew’s death had truly been in battle, and not at the hand of a fellow soldier because he was gay.
With his world split open and his heart ripped out, Jeff Wilfahrt picked up the sword that had fallen from his son’s hand.
Verifying the circumstances of Andrew’s death was certainly a reasonable demand, but Jeff needn’t have worried. Andrew was beloved by his platoon. They named the living quarters they were building for incoming troops “COP Wilfahrt” in honor of him. The Lieutenant in charge of Andrew’s platoon would later send Jeff an engraved bracelet like the ones his entire company elected to wear in memory of Andrew. The note he included said that he hoped Jeff had been able to see the video of the memorial service held for Andrew in Kandahar, noting there were not many dry eyes.
After his death, Jeff and Lori made a video honoring Andrew, which brought a flurry of national media attention. Lori was asked to speak at an OutServe rally and invited to a White House tea for military families. Over the months after Andrew’s death, the couple found themselves in a new unexpected role, speaking out for LGBT equality. Minnesota was in the process of passing their “one man and one woman” marriage amendment to the state’s constitution at the time, and Jeff’s new high profile as the Gold Star Father of a gay soldier afforded him the opportunity to testify before the Minnesota Senate Committee as a proponent of marriage equality.
The anger stage of grief brings with it energy and a drive to do the impossible – to somehow “make things right”. But the final stage of grief, acceptance, often has the opposite effect. Acceptance brings the sober reality that there is nothing that will change the past. Many people battle depression, or seek solitude, trying find a way to go on. Get out of bed each morning. Breathe in and out. Try to establish a new normal, even though nothing is ever going to seem normal again. When Minnesota passed their constitutional amendment in spite of his best efforts, it could easily have been the bucket of cold water that propelled Jeff back to the safety of his old life. Instead, like John Walsh and Marc Klaas after their children were kidnapped, or like Carolyn McCarthy and Sarah Brady after their husbands were shot, Jeff decided he had not yet begun to fight.
Jeff’s southern Minnesota district is currently represented in St. Paul by Republican Kurt Bills, who was once a teacher of the Wilfahrt children. Bills is also solidly against marriage equality. So when Jeff was approached by the Democratic Party to run against Bills, it took awhile, but in the end he said yes. Jeff made it clear from the start he would not be an Etch-a-Sketch politician; he would run on a platform that had LGBT equality as its top priority.
Jeff has a very good shot at turning that Minnesota Congressional seat blue – as well as rainbow friendly. The district is said to be a moderate one, electing both Democrats and Republicans in recent elections. The incumbent, Kurt Bills, has withdrawn from the race so he can challenge Amy Klobuchar for her Senate Seat. Neophyte Anna Wills of Apple Valley, who is a legislative assistant to Republican State Senator Michelle Benson, will be Jeff’s competition in November. All systems are go.
Will a son’s desire to be part of something bigger than himself end with his father fulfilling that wish? There is some small satisfaction in that thought. My heart tells me a State Representative Jeff Wilfahrt would do Minnesota, the gay community, and most especially the memory of Andrew Wilfahrt, proud.
This Memorial Day, we remember all the men and women who have fought for America. We give an extra measure of thanks to all those LGBT soldiers who were made to deny their own identity in order to serve. We remember CPL Andrew Wilfahrt the first gay soldier to die post-DADT and thank him for the legacy he has given to the country: his father Jeff, an unexpected warrior for marriage equality. Today, they are all On Our Radar.
Jean Ann Esselink is a straight friend to the gay community. Proud and loud Liberal. Closet writer of political fiction. Black sheep agnostic Democrat from a conservative Catholic family. Living in Northern Oakland County Michigan with Puck the Wonder Beagle. Find me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter at @uncucumbered.
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