OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. — Diversity comes in all forms and effects everyone differently. For one 49th Intelligence Squadron reservist, it was his sexuality.
“While I wouldn’t identify as bisexual, I never really made a distinction between genders, colors, races…anything,” said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Eric Velander. “I always knew connections instead of genders were important for friendship and romance alike.”
In 2008, he began his journey in the military, which at that time still fell under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. But, this did not deter Velander.
“It’s not something I thought about in the least bit. I knew I was fit, intelligent, patriotic and motivated, the exact things the military looks for in an Airman,” he said. “There was never a time pre or post Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell that I felt I was at risk for harassment, discharge or unfair treatment. People accepted me for me, and didn’t care about frivolous things such as the person I was dating at the time.”
In April 2010, Velander said an Air Force friend, who was openly gay, committed suicide.
“Admittedly, we had some ‘romantic’ history, which was illegal at the time,” he said. “Four months later I was called to my commander’s office to receive my discharge. I immediately started out-processing with my unit and my security clearance was revoked. My command fought for me and delayed my discharge. This was at the time where the law was in contention at the Senate.”
The discharge came as a complete shock to everybody he knew, but it didn’t change the relationships he had forged in the least bit. It was those relationships that kept his leadership fighting.
“Having a lieutenant colonel and a senior master sergeant on your team is a great feeling, especially when those gentlemen could make my life easier,” Velander said. “I felt very much part of the unit and the family we built together. Beyond that, my flight chief and supervisor gave me ample time to speak with the Area Defense Counsel, look for jobs on the outside and get enrolled into college.”
When he told his parents the situation they were also 100 percent supportive.
“I told my parents immediately what happened, unabridged,” said Velander. “They asked me when I’d be home and told me my room would be ready for me. It was a humbling moment, and I’m proud to say they are my parents.”
But, that day never came.
“The day my orders were completed the law was overturned in the 10th circuit of appeals in California, and my life was put on hold,” Velander said. “I did end up staying in, making staff sergeant and becoming the world’s best boss, or so my coffee cup says. Now I’m a reservist, a full-time education student and a sign maker.”
Velander just recently separated from active duty and returned home to the Omaha-area where he was raised. He likes to look back on his experience in a positive light.
“I truly believe without the pending discharge I would never have been the man I am today,” Velander said. “It forced me to reflect upon my weaknesses and shortcomings as well as my strengths. I know now exactly how much pressure I can take. Most importantly, I became a more empathetic and socially conscious person. All of a sudden, I was thrust into the LGBT rights movement, and I heard so many stories from civilians as well as military members, and it made me want to do anything I could. So I fought.”
He said his journey has also helped him as a supervisor.
“The Airmen in my charge knew I wouldn’t judge them for anything, be it alcoholism, problems with work and training or more personal matters such as seeking advice on sexual assault issues or relationship woes,” Velander said. “These are some things people never run into as NCOs, and in my short time as an active duty sergeant, I checked all of those boxes and more. I believe my experiences helped me tremendously, and I believe I thrived as a front-line supervisor.”
In his short time at Offutt, he has already made an impression on his fellow Airmen.
“He is one of the most professional Airmen I’ve met since being assigned to Offutt,” said U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Lawrence Taber, 97th IS. “He has an extremely positive attitude toward his fellow Airmen, always willing to provide support, even to the most menial tasks, and he does it cheerfully. He’s one of the reasons that coming to work is the antithesis to dread.”
Taber said the unit and the Air Force are better off for having Velander as an Airman.
Throughout the past few years, Velander has been forced to meet his diversity head-on and admits the military wouldn’t be the same without it.
“Diversity is the absolute cornerstone of the military,” Velander said. “I think now more than ever, the Air Force is a cohesive team where race, sex, color, sexual identity or religion makes no difference. I love that fact that my ‘solutions’ to problems immediately have holes blown in them because of the different perspectives and experiences people have. I do believe these types of observations go directly to the top, so diversity should be encouraged and celebrated in an organic way throughout every organization.”
He said he will never forget his experience and he makes it a point to encourage others to stand up for what they believe in and make a difference.
“Rhetoric without action is just noise,” Velander said. “If you feel discriminated against, write a letter, knock on a door, make a few friends who feel the same and change it!”