USAF ‘War Hero’ Awarded For Killing Two Men But Discharged For Loving One: The Story Of Leonard Matlovich

His tombstone doesn’t bear a name. Instead, it reads: “A Gay Vietnam War Veteran: When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

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The US Air Force Sergeant Leonard Matlovich, decorated with a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, became the face of gay rights in the country after he came out of the closet.

His declaration on the cover of Time Magazine on September 8, 1975, “I am a Homosexual,” along with his photograph in the Air Force uniform, became the symbol of resistance against the system stacked against homosexuals.

His inspirational story of taking on the system can be a beacon of hope for the Indian homosexual rights activists whose demand for marital parity with heterosexuals hit a wall after the country’s apex court rejected their plea.

Matlovich, also the son of a USAF Sergeant, has served his country bravely in the Vietnam War and earned the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. Once he returned to the US, he stumbled upon a story in Air Force Times that altered the course of his life. A gay rights activist, Frank Kameny, sought a case to test the military’s ban on gay service members.

Matlovich knew he was homosexual for a long time but remained in the closet. He came out in a letter to his commanding officer. “When T/Sgt. Leonard Matlovich handed his coming-out letter to his superior officer, a black captain at Langley Air Force Base, Va., said: ‘What the hell does this mean?’ Replied Matlovich: ‘It means Brown v. the Board of Education.’”

Sergeant Leonard Matlovich.

The 31-year-old US Sergeant categorically refused to answer any questions about his sexuality as it did not interfere with the discharge of his duties. “I am a homosexual and fully qualified for further military service. My almost 12 years of unblemished service supports this position,” Matlovich said in his “coming out” letter.

His public declaration of his sexuality evoked strong reactions from the readers of Time magazine. While some called him “a disgrace to the uniform of an honorable service,” to note the irony of a world where you can “be highly decorated for killing thousands of your fellow men and be drummed out of the corps if you dare to love one.”

The USAF acted predictably by giving him a general discharge, not ‘honorable.’ When he was discharged, he sued for reinstatement. It was the first case of its kind—and Leonard instantly became the public face of a bitter fight for equal treatment of LGBTQ service members that continues to this day.

“During his administrative discharge hearing, Matlovich was asked by an attorney if he would be willing to sign a document pledging to ‘never practice homosexuality again’ to remain in the military,” according to Air Force history. “Matlovich, protesting the ban, refused. The panel ultimately found him unfit for service, and he was given a general, later upgraded to an honorable discharge.”

Leonard was a picture-perfect spokesman. He had voluntarily served three tours of duty in Vietnam. He had been injured while clearing landmines. He had an exemplary record, was a decorated Vietnam veteran, and taught classes to ease racial tensions in the armed forces. He was a patriot, a conservative, and a believer. He grew up Catholic and later became an elder in the Mormon church.

Matlovich’s case inspired other enlisted gay and lesbian people to fight for their right to serve, including Navy officer Vernon E. “Copy” Berg.

Historically, the Air Force and other services had excluded homosexuals because they would threaten “discipline, good order, morale, and security . . . wholesome and healthful environment.”

Five years after the discharge, the US Air Force was forced by a court order to reinstate him and offer back pay. He refused to rejoin the service. Eventually, he settled out of court with the Air Force for US$160,000 in exchange for an agreement to give up his battle for readmission.

Image for Representation

“It just tears me apart on the inside,” Matlovich said in his first national TV interview in May 1975. “My conscience just wouldn’t let me do it anymore. I had to come forward and say: No more, America!” It was only in 2013 that the US Supreme Court began considering whether to overturn a ban on same-sex marriages.

In 1986, he was diagnosed as being HIV positive. The following year, he made a second startling public statement, revealing during a TV interview that he had the condition. Matlovich died of AIDS in 1988. He was 44.

Matlovich was buried in the Congressional Cemetery beneath a gravestone that reads, “A Gay Vietnam Veteran.” The other occupants of the cemetery were Founding Fathers or lawmakers from the Revolutionary War era. His nameless grave is representative of the protracted battle homosexuals had to fight in the US for equality.

  • Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
  • She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at)
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