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The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


    Air Force’s Reichen Lehmkuhl

    Reichen Lehmkuhl tells his story about being in the Air Force Academy during the time of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. (EZRA MARGONO /THE STATESMAN)

    When he found out the news about the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010, which was the ending of a policy that prevented gay and lesbian members of the community from serving in the armed forces, Reichen Lehmkuhl sat back in his New York office’s seat and let out a big sigh of relief.

    Lehmkuhl, who served in the United States Air Force Academy during the time of the now-repealed act, said the original act and the policies of the Air Force were hypocritical because you have to follow certain values, such as integrity.

    “You can’t tell integrity if you tell young men and women to lie,” Lehmkuhl said. “Integrity is about staying true to yourself. When you’re true to yourself, you find yourself in your best situation.”

    Being true to himself has given him the opportunity to write a book about his experiences and have students, such as the ones at Stony Brook University, read it and base their freshman seminar “creative experessions” assignment on it.

    “Seeing the art from the assignment has just been amazing,” Lehmkuhl said, admitting that he had cried three times while walking through the gallery of artwork.

    One piece of artwork, drawn by Skylar Mavraganis, exemplified tombstones of soldiers and a line above it saying “Which One’s Gay?” Another was a uniformed teddy bear with a note that said the artist’s mom had a license plate with the words “When all else fails, hug your teddy bear.” There was a painting done by Shannon Smallwood of a unicorn with its horn wrapped with the words “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” A quilt by Julie Lavalliere had Cadet Lehmkuhl stitched on it. Jenny Lin did a drawing of a caged bird escaping into an Air Force plane.

    In addition to working as an author, Lehmkuhl also won the Amazing Race in 2003.

    “It was really nice to represent the gay community,” he said.

    He contributed his win to the workout that he did during his training for the Air Force. He also said he is addicted to the gym.

    “All thousand of us were lined up, dressed and covered on this field, and were made to do various physical training exercises, including jumping jacks, push-ups, sit-ups and running in place, while periodically stopping to drink from our canteens,” Lehmkuhl wrote in his book, “Here’s What We’ll Say: Growing Up, Coming Out and the U.S. Air Force Academy.”

    Originally, he was just writing his memories down to write them, but someone read it and said that he could turn it into a really great book. So he did.

    Lehmkuhl’s first name wasn’t always Reichen. When he was younger, he was always called Ricky. One day he went to school and the nuns called him Richard. He went home and asked why they were calling him “this weird name.” He later legally changed it, mixing Old English dictionary and a German dictionary. He found the word Reichen, which in German means riches, or in the verb form, to give or to reach.

    “I love my name cause I’m the only one who has it,” Lehmkuhl said.

    In his book, he talks about the many stages of his life, from his youth when his parents separated and his insecurities with men, to his high school days leading up to the Air Force and his serious girlfriend of the time.  Of course, he talks about the experiences in the Air Force, including the times he had to shower in close quarters with other soldiers and of the days he would have to have food sneaked around for him because the cadet in charge of his team would not let them touch their meals. He later goes into his discoveries and his future from the Air Force Academy.

    He also recounts the time a younger soldier confided in Lehmkuhl, who at that time was moved up in the Air Force Academy, that he was gay.

    “I didn’t know if I should counsel him about the boyfriend back home,” Lehmkuhl wrote in his book. “At the time, the law was that I couldn’t ask him if he was gay and he couldn’t tell me. But he did tell me, and I had to make a decision.”

    If he were in that exact position now, he wouldn’t have to make that decision.

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