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Interview with Mario Benfield [1/22/2004]

Steve Estes:

I am Steve Estes and today is January 22, 2004.

Mario Benfield:

And my name is Mario Benfield and it is January 22, 2004.

Steve Estes:

Alright, so, a little bit of review here, when and where were you born?

Mario Benfield:

I was born in Panama City, Panama in April of 1961, April 17th.

Steve Estes:

And what did your parents do for a living?

Mario Benfield:

Um, probably my mom was like a housecleaner or did a service type job, at that time.

Steve Estes:

Uh huh, and your dad, you were saying...?

Mario Benfield:

He was probably, he could have been in the Navy, it doesn't bring...my mom has really never talked about him and it hasn't been important to me, so I just...I've got a stepfather, from my earliest memories I always remember my stepfather so it hasn't been a big concern.

Steve Estes:

When did your mom marry your stepdad?

Mario Benfield:

I would say 1964, so I was three.

Steve Estes:

Right, what did your stepdad do?

Mario Benfield:

He was a young lawyer, he was in the army, but after the army, he put himself through law school; he went to Chapel Hill and the University of North Carolina.

Steve Estes:

When did you guys move to the states?

Mario Benfield:

Probably about '62 or '63.

Steve Estes:

So, that was before they met?

Mario Benfield:

Yes.

Steve Estes:

Where did you move?

Mario Benfield:

Um, my mother, I believe brought us to North Carolina because she had a sister or an aunt that lived in Hickory.

Steve Estes:

Do you consider yourself a North Carolinian by adoption?

Mario Benfield:

I think I have developed a taste for Southern food [laughs]--scrapple and grits--yes.

Steve Estes:

[laughs] Uh, huh, what was growing up in Hickory like?

Mario Benfield:

Well, I was just a little kid, I don't have very much memory of it but as my dad went to law school, he would finish and we would move about every year or two years, so we moved to Athens, Georgia, we moved to Cleveland, Ohio, we moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and finally moved to Champagne Urbana, Illinois and that was about 1966 or 67 when we finally got to Champagne, Illinois, so it was quite a lot of moving in that period of time.

Steve Estes:

And he was in the Army that whole time?

Mario Benfield:

He had already got out of the Korean War and was putting himself through law school.

Steve Estes:

Oh, ok. So you weren't moving around for the military?

Mario Benfield:

Right.

Steve Estes:

You were moving around for his law profession. Gotcha, so, I take it that means you grew up mostly in Illinois?

Mario Benfield:

Yes.

Steve Estes:

Ok, can you tell me a little about your childhood growing up there?

Mario Benfield:

Well, I did kindergarten all the way through high school, and I was a pretty normal kid. I had a lot of brothers and sisters

Steve Estes:

How many is that that you are pointing to? [He is showing a picture.]

Mario Benfield:

Well I have three sisters, and four brothers.

Steve Estes:

Wow, that's huge.

Mario Benfield:

And, here's just a couple of photographs to show you that it was quite a group.

Steve Estes:

[laughs]

Mario Benfield:

And I was the second to the youngest.

Steve Estes:

Which one's you? That's what I thought. Ok, so, it was a big household.

Mario Benfield:

Quite. When my mother had her children, my stepfather had three boys of his own, so the combination was quite a collection and they together produced a small child, she's my baby sister.

Steve Estes:

Ok, when you got out of high school did you decide to go straight into the military?

Mario Benfield:

Exactly. Yeah, I was regular in high school and did quite a lot of sports.

Steve Estes:

Played football...

Mario Benfield:

I played football, track, was on the swim team, um, I played the tuba in the band in Junior High, so, I was looking at all the various schools I could go to and my dad was kind of pushing me by getting me books on colleges and asking me to select a college, um, but I decided to go down and join the Marine Corp.

Steve Estes:

How did your dad feel about that, being a former army member?

Mario Benfield:

He cried.

Steve Estes:

Really? Why?

Mario Benfield:

Um, I guess, well he probably wanted me to go to law school but I was kind of in a rebellious, you know, seventeen, eighteen year olds, but I wanted to do something different, I didn't want to, I guess be like him.

Steve Estes:

How did your mom feel about it?

Mario Benfield:

Well, she must have had her experiences with the military so, my older brother was already in the Navy, and then one brother had gone into the army and so the military was already ingrained and since they were in those services, I chose the Marine Corps.

Steve Estes:

Right, but the Marines are the toughest, so why'd you choose the toughest?

Mario Benfield:

Well, I grew up watching John Wayne and those movies, I felt a little bit like that, I felt that I could take it on, take the challenge.

Steve Estes:

Now this is not long after Vietnam War, there was probably some anti-military feelings going on in the country. Did you feel any of that when you were growing up?

Mario Benfield:

Certainly, certainly. Jimmy Carter was leaving, Ronald Reagan was coming in '79 and there was a need to build up confidence in the American military and I felt that calling too and so I went in to the Marine Corp to do my part.

Steve Estes:

Can you tell me a little bit about boot camp, what you remember?

Mario Benfield:

It was a real experience for me, it was an eye opener and I had...it was pretty rough in the beginning, but I got through it without any problems. I didn't have any physical problems doing the work and...

Steve Estes:

Were you at Paris Island?

Mario Benfield:

No, I was in San Diego.

Mario Benfield:

As a matter of fact I left all of the big pictures back on my desk.

Steve Estes:

That's alright. So, do you remember any specific incidence where you were like. ..where it was a wake up call for you when you got to boot camp.

Mario Benfield:

Yes, my bunkie, who slept above me, decided to grow one of his fingernails really long, and it was just his thing to have this long fingernail, I guess, I don't know, for picking, who knows, and during inspection when he held his hand out, instead of hiding that one little pinkie nail, the drill instructor saw it, slapped his hands down and told him to cut it and um, it evolved into me as being the only witness seeing him slap the recruit, everyone else didn't see it, and I was brought in surrounded by the drill instructors and, then, in 1979 you didn't hit the recruit during basic training. In the past I think it was accepted but lawsuits... and so the drill instructors were on me asking for, what did you see and did you see it, and of course I let them know and my confession would have brought some kind of charge to the drill instructor who did the hitting. In the end, I felt, after discussing with my bunkie that was sleeping above me, he said, "Tony, I want to get out, I want to get out of the military now, so I don't care what you say, if you say you didn't see me I don't care, its up to you." And I said "Fine you don't want to stay in, I didn't see anything" and so we left it at that. He was processed out.

Steve Estes:

You know why he wanted to get out?

Mario Benfield:

It just didn't suit him.

Steve Estes:

Right.

Mario Benfield:

After I got out of the Marine Corp, I still had his address, I wrote to him and he was from Gary, Indiana, I think, and just to see how he was and just to let him know that, you know, I hope I did the right thing, and I hope your life is better

Steve Estes:

What did he say? Did you get in touch with him?

Mario Benfield:

I didn't get a response from him, but my letter never came back.

Steve Estes:

Right, so after basic training, where were you first sent?

Mario Benfield:

I was sent to Okinawa and I was sent, after thirty days leave, to Second Battalion, Fourth Marines

Steve Estes:

Tell me about the leave real quick, I don't mean to interrupt you, but did you go home?

Mario Benfield:

I went back to Illinois, and I went to bonfires, with all my country bumpkin friends, hung out with them, went to keggers and everything, and I had a shaved head of course still, and was lean, and all my friends were...I kind of impressed a few of them, because I later saw one of my friends at the boot camp, I saw him at...yeah I saw him, he was in boot camp and I was going to infantry training and I saw him and one of the lieutenants saw him, but the last time I had seen him was when I had gone home, I didn't know he was going to come into the Marine Corps.

Steve Estes:

So you think you were the inspiration for him?

Mario Benfield:

I think I was.

Steve Estes:

Did he ever tell you about that?

Mario Benfield:

I haven't seen him since, so I hope everything's ok with him.

Steve Estes:

What were your first impressions of Okinawa?

Mario Benfield:

Great, being away, being in a foreign land, that's what I really wanted, so I was absorbing the culture and I like to get off base and wander around and go to villages and take a cab around the island and a trip.

Steve Estes:

What were relations like with the Japanese on the island? Did you know any of them?

Mario Benfield:

My relationship...I tried to mingle with the people, mostly you would go to the restaurant and eat and something like that where I would do the local competition...

Steve Estes:

What was this? [Points to an advertisement for a ten-kilometer race on Okinawa.]

Mario Benfield:

This was a yearly run, and the mayor has put his stamp here, it was a ten-kilometer run with the Japanese, actually and the marines and we would run together and compete. I liked to get out and do that.

Steve Estes:

It's called the Camp Schwab-Henoko Village Sports Day? Is that what it's called?

Mario Benfield:

Yeah, and I would like to add that, while when I first went to Okinawa I was transferred and I was transferred to a small camp in mainland Japan and it was, even though you were attached with two-four, second battalion fourth Marines got different companies and I was attached with a weapons company and sent to a small camp called Camp Fuji and it's a Marine Camp at the foot of Mount Fuji. There was a great fire that killed 27 Marines and I have that clipping, the news article on my desk and most of the Marines killed were in weapons company so they needed to replenish the company and the platoon sergeants just randomly picked people and said, "You're going to be sent somewhere else and so here I arrived and it was winter and I was at this camp learning and I had kind of heard about the typhoon tip that flooded the camp, lifted the fuel bladder. The fuel bladder floated and burst open and caught the gas heaters un the Quonset huts on fire and consequently burned the Marines and the Marines were killed because of their burns and so I was with 2-4, actually then and I remained with them for a year or so.

Steve Estes:

What was your, what was it called, your MOS [Military Occupational Specialty]?

Mario Benfield:

My MOS varied. I am a mortar man. I am a, of course a basic rifleman, a machine gunner, a reconnaissance Marine, and a reconnaissance Marine scuba diver, (86? Inaudible), and of course you pick up different skills in the military because they want to train you as much knowledge as possible and diversify your fields.

Steve Estes:

Which of those things did you like the most or did feel like you were the best at?

Mario Benfield:

Probably the Marine reconnaissance.

Steve Estes:

Can you tell me a little bit about what that training was like and what you...

Mario Benfield:

Well, quickly going through, I did exactly the same thing in 2-4 that I did in 3-6 which is mortars, mortars, mortars, mortars, I was really good at that, I was a very good gunner, I could set the bi-pod, and drop a round on a target, I became very proficient, but with third reconnaissance it was so diversified, repelling out of choppers, off cliffs, then the scuba diving then the patrols at night, then landing on beaches, quite maneuvering, (inaudible) the whole thing was very interesting, and being independent of everyone and getting in, getting your information, and getting out and your mission's completed. That was probably the highlight.

Steve Estes:

Were most of these training missions?

Mario Benfield:

AH training, all training, building up the skill, learning the equipment, and the technique, and the environment and the terrain.

Steve Estes:

Now once you were finished in Okinawa for your first stint, where did you head?

Mario Benfield:

I went to Camp Le Jeune

Steve Estes:

Ok, can you tell me a little but about that, what were doing there?

Mario Benfield:

Doing basically the same amphibious warfare, we would...my remembrance was going out in Camp Le Jeune, especially one time. Two carrier ships aborting amphibious landing craft, dropping off the ships, flowing, hitting the beach, disembarking, going inland, setting up positions, setting up your mortar places and just doing technical work, together with the navy and the Marine air support, just practicing that and then practicing your mortar, live rounds, with rounds constantly, training for combat and wearing all of your heavy equipment and your rifle of course, the C-Rat, we had the cans, so subsisting on the can food for weeks at a time [laughs], digging your little gun pits, filling sand bags, fortifying your positions and then quickly displacing, leaving, going one and a half miles down the road.

Steve Estes:

One of the things I was going to ask you is about other friends of yours that were in the Marines, can you talk about the friends you made while you were in the service?

Mario Benfield:

Yes, I had quite a few very good friends. Yeah, quite a few, guys that I knew very well, I would go out with, here's a couple of pictures of some of my close buddies. I had been to the Philippines three times.

Steve Estes:

Was this on leave?

Mario Benfield:

No, two were for detachment, when the Marines go from Okinawa to do jungle warfare, and the Marine Corp has a small base at Subic called Upper Mao, just a small collection of Quonset huts that we would inhabit as one battalion moves in and then they would go into the jungle, especially an area called Seven Steps to Heaven and we would be fully loaded with our equipment and in the hot tropical weather we would climb this huge mountain, seven hills until we reached the top and this would be a very enduring exercise of moving the company up, people dropped out, disembarked. So, what was your question?

Steve Estes:

[Laughs] That's alright, I was asking about your friends but this was very interesting.

Mario Benfield:

Yeah, you developed friendship, various friendships with your gunner, in your platoon, you were divided into four sections and in four sections there would be two groups, two squads of five people, you had your gunner, who operates the sight on the mortar and then you have various, in fact, everyone would know each other's job, trained in each others job.

Steve Estes:

Now, how do you think your sexuality affected your time in the service?

Mario Benfield:

It caused me to leave when I realized that it would be a problem. [Laughs]

Steve Estes:

Can you talk a little bit about that realization?

Mario Benfield:

I found, I just found myself being more...I came out in the Marine Corps, and I came out on Okinawa, and ultimately as the years went by, I must have come out in 19881 or 82 but when I finally realized not to continue in the Marine Corps, it was because I wasn't happy in the Marine Corps anymore

Steve Estes:

So did you come out to your fellow troops, I mean, they knew you were gay?

Mario Benfield:

No.

Steve Estes:

Ok. You just came out to yourself then?

Mario Benfield:

Yeah, I came out on Okinawa one night when I was on...I had my first homosexual experience while I was stationed with third Reconnaissance battalion and before the experience, before my actual first meeting, I had been going through a lot of feelings, so one night I went out on liberty, and I had a car. I bought a car; not too many people had cars, but I got one for like 70 bucks, [laughs] And so when I went out to a bar, I met a guy and then we went back to his little rental room and I found out that he was a sergeant on leave, visiting Okinawa from mainland Japan and so we spent the night together and so that was my very first time [laughs]. And we broke the bed [laughs harder].

Steve Estes:

That sounds like an auspicious beginning.

Mario Benfield:

It was a little Japanese overnighter, and the walls were thin, and the floor was thin, it looked like the whole building, second floor was like a little thin rice paper place [laughs], but it sure was an eye opener [laughs],

Steve Estes:

So, after that, you were in for three more years so what was it like being in for three years...?

Mario Benfield:

It was more controlled; I had control. It was no longer a mystery because I had met Philippino women, and I had spent time with Philippino women, you know, on leave you go to the brothels and you can...I had gone to Manilla, you would go in and find a nice lady and spend time with them, but it was an unusual experience for me after my experience on liberty when I met this guy, I felt that I would, I was a lot more comfortable so I had to vary from that of course since that day.

Steve Estes:

Was it hard to kind of hide it from other people, did you feel like you had to hide it?

Mario Benfield:

I knew it would be acceptable, and since Marine Corps daily life really doesn't have to do with personality but with conduct, duty, it didn't have any bearing. In the Marine Corps of my time, you did your job and then you had your personal time afterwards.

Steve Estes:

Did you know any other gay soldiers or did you feel persecuted or prejudiced?

Mario Benfield:

No. Well, from Okinawa as I was moving different duty stations I had different experiences at each duty station.

Steve Estes:

Any of the folks you knew, did they suffer for being gay in the Marines?

Mario Benfield:

One time, I think, as a matter of fact, one time when I was third Marine battalion, when I first got with them, when I first got to Okinawa, second time, they loaded me on a truck with fifteen other Marines, we all wondered where are we going, and the word came out we're going to third reconnaissance battalion and everyone looked at each other and says, Ok, and so we got to base, it was a secluded base and one side of the island which was strictly civilian, called Ona Point and about two or three months there they were discharging one of the Marines in the headquarters company and he was being discharged, was he being discharged, or reduced in rank or something because of homosexuality and they did this in front of., .they had the whole battalion laid out and they did this one thing for him and it was like poor bastard [laughs] you should have been more careful or something but sorry guy. So that was my first experience and I hadn't come out yet. But like the way of life, things are surprising, you know just like when you get a wart, hey it's there and just pops out of you, sometimes you just have to deal with things as they come.

Steve Estes:

What did they do to him in front of the battalion?

Mario Benfield:

They just read the order, the disciplinary action, could have been fined, and the, like any order, it starts off with a declaration and signed by colonel so and so on this date and they start off something like "To all who shall see these presence and reading, no ye in special trust and confidence," so and so, did this or that and it would be an order like that.

Steve Estes:

What's the one you're reading?

Mario Benfield:

This actually is a promotion [laughs]. Every time you were promoted from one grade or another, you would be...everyone would be in their platoons or ranks and the number of Marines would be standing there at attention and the citation would be given to the officer and he would read it before everyone and it says [reading] they strictly charge and require all personnel of letter or grade to render obedience to next in rank so it's very [inaudible],

Steve Estes:

Was that one when you were promoted to Sergeant?

Mario Benfield:

This particular one was when I was promoted to Corporal.

Steve Estes:

Ok, what did you...you had progressed through the ranks from private, I guess...

Mario Benfield:

Right, and each grade was presented at a different camp. This, I got Corporal when I was with Third Recon. and it tells you where you got it, the date, the rank, and the General, all on the citation. So there's no mistake.

Steve Estes:

When you became a Sergeant, how'd that feel?

Mario Benfield:

It felt good, because I had an experience when I got Sergeant that kind of exposed me as a homosexual in front of the whole company.

Steve Estes:

Explain.

Mario Benfield:

Well, I had been out, of course, with some friends and I had come back to the barracks and there was three of us in a room together, and it was late at night and one of the fellas, he was being processed out of the military and he was almost like in despair, and he was going through some non-judicial punishment procedures and we all knew that, and I knew that, but in this case, it was late at night and he removed all of his clothes, except for his underwear and he just laid on the floor and [laughs], so I was sitting there and the other fella in the room left, and so it was just me and him and it was just a very peculiar situation and I just went over and sat on him and I was trying to lure him or seduce him and he said I don't agree with this and I says well...this was after I had come out in Third Recon., this was at the basic school at Quantico, and I said "Well, I'm sorry, I thought you were going in that direction. He says, "No. I'm not." So, I said "Fine." So I went back to my own quarters and in the morning my staff sergeant woke me up and said "First Lieutenant needs to speak with you." Apparently over the course of the evening he had made the report to the camp guard and they wrote up a report so now it was in the books or whatever, in the log, and the First Lieutenant said to me, I have a report here that you went over to so and so and sat on him and made some comments to him, "Is this true?" and I said "Yes, it's true, I did sit on him and..." and also he has reported that you had done similar things at your last camp with a Sergeant and a Lieutenant, is this true? And I said, "Yes it is true." And he said, "Well, Corporal Benfield, I don't care what you do on your own time but when you're here, it's about duty, you do your job." And that was the end of it.

Steve Estes:

And then you got Sergeant not too long after that?

Mario Benfield:

Yeah, probably about six months afterwards, the rank. And it probably had to do with because I was good at what I did and my history, my service was pretty much impeccable.

Steve Estes:

Do you feel like that was normal, that superior officers would dress you down in private but then say you know this can't happen again, or do you think that was atypical?

Mario Benfield:

Well, under the circumstance, the accuser was already going through some non-judicial punishment, he was being weeded out for a drug offense, I think it was, so there wasn't really too much validity, if it had been...its what I am thinking, I mean it probably may have happened but, shortly after that an interesting thing happened, I had made friends with a military policeman and he picked me up while I was jogging, because I would jog, swim, to stay in shape, I was just like, trying to become better, to help my image or something. I was, from that point on, "God! Everyone knows, so just keep going; it's not the end of the world." He picked me up and took me to his room, his quarters, he took me to his room, and he too, disrobed and got into his underwear and so it was just me and him in there and so I just made the connection that this was probably a little trap to see if, I would snap and so I just was consciously aware that this was not going to happen, I don't need the hassle and so it just didn't...and I don't know if I ever saw that guy again but I know the military intelligence do there own thing so I think that was one of their little intelligence, [inaudible] and also the fact that a buddy of mine from third reconnaissance came up to me and said, "Hey Benfield, you know the military police were asking some questions about you" [laughs]. They said do you think that Corporal Benfield is a homosexual, and I said to them, "Hell no!" Because I had done training with that guy and so it was just such a weird thing and I eventually became the platoon sergeant of the weapons company there so even though I was confident in learning about my own self, it didn't hinder my ability to excel and run this company efficiently. They were pushing me to go to [reenlist?]...instead of leave because I had decided to leave the Marine Corps. I got my discharge from there, but they were encouraging me to go into the Officer candidate school to become an officer because they needed recommendations...we could recommend you if this was what you want but I realized the Marine Corps was changing.

Steve Estes:

How was it changing?

Mario Benfield:

There was whole new groups of people coming in, much more smarter, much more educated, the PFC's now were college graduates, they were a little bit more difficult tot handle, they wouldn't...it was always, it just seemed much more brainier, there were always comments about...I think probably one of the things is that I was more or less coming a little but more out, it was on my record, it was time to go. It was kind of a character thing.

Steve Estes:

Ok, so when you decided to get out, you got an honorable discharge, I mean you didn't sign up again, right? That's all that happens?

Mario Benfield:

Right, and then I just went into the, went to college, went to the reserves.

Steve Estes:

Where'd you go to college?

Mario Benfield:

I went to, I stayed in the Quantico area, I went to Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria and then, I did that for awhile and then moved to the District of Columbia and then moved back home to Urbana, Illinois and went to Parkland College and then I dropped out of college and started working at a hog farm and joined the reserves, I was a weekend warrior for about a year and a half

Steve Estes:

How'd you like the reserves?

Mario Benfield:

Same, it was a little bit better, it was kind of any and everyone, you know, college guys, working guys, and they would do their weekend warrior stuff and I would be, I was a sergeant, I came in and became the platoon sergeant of that reserve unit, so I had the knowledge and skill of doing the mortar, it was more of a rifle company, it wasn't mortar it was more rifle and tactics in combat

Steve Estes:

When did you come out to California?

Mario Benfield:

I came out to California in about '87, no wait, yeah 87, 1987.

Steve Estes:

What brought you out here?

Mario Benfield:

Everything was getting to sticky and confined in Urbana, Illinois, just things were closing up on me.

Steve Estes:

Can you tell me a little bit more, how you mean?

Mario Benfield:

Well, I was out of the closet and I started socializing and you get to know everyone in a small town and growing up in that small town, your parents being there, I lived at home for awhile and then I loved into my own apartment and I worked and so I figured it was time to leave home again and I took a Greyhound bus to the Northwest, to Montana and Spokane, Washington, Seattle and kind of felt that area and then went down South to New Orleans and Texas and I was just trying to feel where I would be best suited and then I decided to go and work for my uncle in Bull Head City, Arizona construction. So, I have been in the construction field since, [laughs] and he specialized in concrete, pouring footings and building houses on the sand, sandy desert soil. So, from Bull Head City, I got a ride with a friend to Long Beach and stayed with my various brothers, I have three brothers that live in the L. A. area and I stayed in one brother's garage for a little while and worked in an iron...steel mill and then I lived in another brother's...stayed with another brother, and his wife...all my brother's are married, then went with another brother, then one day I realized that I am going to go to San Francisco and so I took a bus with $27 in my pocket and took the bus to San Francisco, got off, put my stuff in a locker and spent all my money the first day [laughs]. So, I have tackling that.

Steve Estes:

So, do you work construction now?

Mario Benfield:

Yes, I have a small repair business.

Steve Estes:

Can you tell me a little bit about the [American Legion] Post, when did you get involved with the Post and why did you decide to get involved with the Post?

Mario Benfield:

Well, I was reading one of the gay rags and heard about the Alexander Hamilton Post honorably discharged veterans and I said, "Oh I've got to go to one of these meetings," and they were scheduled for Thursday night I think at the Veterans Building, it was about 1988, 89 and I walked into the meeting and as a matter of fact, I have a picture of me at the meeting, at that very meeting and I can't find it, someone took it and gave it to me. I had a tight Marine Corp haircut and I walked in and I heard the founding commander Paul Hardman speaking, talking about the issues, the lost treasures of the Veterans Building [tape stops and cuts off rest, interview continues onto other side of tape]. Tape Side В I realized, what was wrong with being gay and being in the military, that was the eye opener there, there were at that time dozens of World War II veterans, I had only seen in uniform and seen over the years, and all of a sudden here they were and they were gay and I was gay and there they were, so that was what was infatuating.

Steve Estes:

Can you tell me a little bit about the history of the Post, why Paul started it and when he started it, to the best of your knowledge?

Mario Benfield:

The Post originally was...the Post originated out of the Alexander Hamilton Veterans Association that was the parent. Alexander Hamilton and this gentleman Lawrence were involved and just yesterday I have asked a member to start the research to acquire the letters under Hamilton's own writings of microfiche that are spread out from Columbia University, even Winter Castle in London, couple of the historical societies, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and of course the Library of Congress, to assemble the letters and I think you can even send them to our library on microfiche, but he is a member, I believe his name is Bobbett, he's just enthusiastic about the research aspect of this and just the discovery and I said this is going to be a great asset to the Post because we are named after such an important American founding father to have them in our possession because its always been a question, where are these letters, have you seen them? How do you know? And so that study is starting, so the founder Paul Hardman started the Veterans Association under that guise that Alexander Hamilton, important military man, also leaning towards homosexuality was worthy enough for us to have his name as out mascot and so to make it official that we could meet and inhabit, we were already veterans, honorably discharged, but to inhabit rooms in this building on time and orderly without complications, he sought, to create, an American Legion Post, and he assembled the members, the initial, what we call "charter members" together started the meetings, started keeping minutes then applied for the charter. Eventually the charter as approved and issued on August 17, 1985 and there's a copy of the charter in the room.

Steve Estes:

Was there any resistance from the state or national to...

Mario Benfield:

Yes of course, when the Alexander Hamilton's Veterans Association, who this year is printing the twentieth issue of their newsletter in 1984, the Association was already meeting for a year and a half, the veterans in this building were very conservative and knew these veterans were homosexual and of course I believe the charter was lost once. They issued the charter, they weren't able to find the charter so we had to apply again for the new charter because the actual physical charter is a testament of your validity. We keep a copy, it's a printed copy of the charter, but the original is hanging in the home of Arch Wilson, our Judge Advocate.

Steve Estes:

So, I understand from another interview that one of the reasons Paul got so excited about this Post was that there was a chance that the veterans might lose this building. Do you know much about this fight to save the Veterans Building?

Mario Benfield:

Yes. It's ongoing. This veterans building is very historical. San Francisco is where the United Nations met after World War H to create themselves and to authenticate all of the agreements like the Geneva Convention Break in the tape.

Steve Estes:

Ok, you were talking about the fight for the Post, fight for the building, excuse me.

Mario Benfield:

So, it's just top quality construction. It withstood the 1989 earthquake while other buildings became uninhabitable, like City Hall, the Mayor and the Supervisors moved into this building, the rooms are big and spacious and a lot of people want it but it was constructed in the twenties and...no actually it was completed in the thirties, '31 or something, but...

Steve Estes:

For veterans, explicitly for veterans?

Mario Benfield:

Well they were raising the Legionnaires, the American Legion was created in the twenties. They wanted a war memorial for veterans but the other groups really weren't interested in doing the backbone work of raising the money but the American Legion did. The American Legion had fundraisers and everything and so as a result, they became...the American Legion became the sole beneficiaries of the building and in time together with the arts, the Performing Arts of San Francisco together. It wasn't the VFW, it wasn't TAV. I don't know if there were even chartered in that time bit the American Legion was chartered in '21 by Woodrow Wilson and Congress. So slowly over the years, other veterans groups have started coming in, which is fine and of course, the American Legion Posts which are like small businesses have been just slowly disappearing as veterans pass on, smaller Posts consolidate with others and charters are surrendered and turned in and there are only 16 American Legion Posts left in this county, city and county of San Francisco which amounts to only about twenty two hundred veterans. The Alexander Hamilton Post currently has about 245 veterans in it and we are the fourth largest Post in this county, which is called the 8th District.

Steve Estes:

So, can you talk about why the state and the national are so uncomfortable with...?

Mario Benfield:

Traditionally they are very conservative, they feel that homosexuality has no place in the regimental military fabric when we know through history that men working together tightly and even having an intimate bond can be a cohesive power in accomplishing and tackling the enemy. It can help.

Steve Estes:

Now, I understand that the Post has had some activism and demonstrations. Can you talk about some of the things that you guys have done?

Mario Benfield:

Yes. Since I have been with the Post, we have always tried to stay abreast of the community, which is one of our charter goals. We do have a preamble in the American Legion and it goes in a way like this: For God and country, we associate ourselves together for the following purposes: to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America, to maintain law and order, top foster and perpetuate a 100 percent Americanism to maintain law and order, to foster and perpetuate...but it goes on to say to remember our associations in all the wars, to make right the master of mind, promoted peace and good will and we consecrate ourselves and to our devotion.* We have a commitment to our community as well. When medicinal marijuana was a big issue in San Francisco and even in the state of California, the Post took a stand and said, "We want this." When the needle exchange was a problem, to keep Hepatitis A from spreading, we said, "Yes we go on record to support a clean needle exchange." When there was concern about the first war in...to liberate Kuwait, the Post was just as divided as Congress was and when thy came to us and asked us if we would support the war, we didn't support, we tabled the issue and so we didn't give our support for the war and when this current war arose the membership requested to use a banner and flags to participate in an anti-war protest, so when the members see the facts and they're smart and read the issues and they decide to do something, no man or mountain can stop them. They pretty much do what they vote on and there are some dissenters but the majority rules.

Steve Estes:

What's your feeling about the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy that's been in place for ten years?

Mario Benfield:

It's monstrous. It's monstrous. It's hurt a lot of people. It was unnecessary and it was very sneaky at that time for Senator Dunn to go on board the submarines and the ships to ask sailors what they would think of having gay servicemen around. When General Powell's personal body guard came out to General Powell, General Powell told him, "I don't care what you do, but as long as you are doing your job good that's fine and in 93 when all the Chiefs of Staff were told that President Clinton may lift the ban, and there was discontent in the upper echelons of the high * The American Legion motto in full reads: "For God and Country we associate ourselves together for the following purposes: to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America; to maintain law and order; to foster and perpetuate a one hundred percent Americanism; to preserve the memories and incidents of our associations in the great wars; to inculcate a sense of individual obligation to the community, state and nation; to combat the autocracy of both the classes and the masses; to make right the master of might; to promote peace and goodwill on earth; to safeguard and transmit to posterity the principles of justice, freedom and democracy; to consecrate and sanctify our comradeship by our devotion to mutual helpfulness." ranking officers in all the militaries, General Powell should have spoken up, but he didn't, he remained silent. He should have laid the law down, and I have met General Powell and he could have been an important part in the very beginning to say, "Look, there's nothing wrong, gay and lesbians are hard workers, if you want to leave because of this, there's the door, get out," and this whole matter could have been resolved then, I think. So, the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy which was kind of a compromise from Representative Barney Frank, just another compromise, either vote no on the issue or vote yes, but the compromise put so many people through all this trouble, discharge and after years of good service like Gretta Kathemeyer, Colonel Gretta Kathemeyer, all her services and it's harmful. All of these service men and women like Keith Meinhold, Zoe Dunning, Jose Zonega have all come through the Post and we have met them and we have also met all of the families of those servicemen killed, the young gentlemen in mainland Japan who was beat up and killed in a bathroom and the young Army private killed in Fort Louis, Kentucky in his bed. All of the anti gay killings have affected the Post.

Steve Estes:

What would your ideal policy be?

Mario Benfield:

Well, much like the Israelis or the Canadians, or the Australians or the British, just utilize each volunteer to the best of their ability. If the gay and lesbian volunteers, whether the Army or Navy, seem to feel more comfortable not being around this or that or the heterosexuals don't feel comfortable being around, they can make their own decisions, but if they are a rifleman, they fly an F-l 8 or whatever, get on with your duty, do the work, if you break any rule in the military you're bound by the uniform code of the military justice, you'll be fined, you'll lose grade, but this sodomy rule, I mean if you're caught doing that, it's a violation, so you need to...there's a time and place for everything, take it off base and there's no reason for the military police to be doing these nonsensical investigations to see what is that colonel doing after hours or what's that sergeant...We need to be on about with the events of the country and get out of the lives of our volunteers. Otherwise, go back to the draft. Don't allow the young people to volunteer to go in, do their job, discover that "Oh, I'm gay or lesbian," and then kick them out because of their discovery.

Steve Estes:

How do you think the military influenced your life as you look back on it?

Mario Benfield:

Oh, very good. I was able when I was stationed, we call it MCDEC, it's the gold and glitter of the Marine Corp, Quantico, Virginia and when I was with headquarters company, I was able to work with something called a Marine Corp Activities Team and we traveled all around the country and even to most of South America and this was the time of the Faukland Islands and I traveled with a small team of officers including the General and I operated the slide projector and another Corporal operated the film projector and we traveled to war colleges and we went to bases in Brazil and Columbia and Chile and Uruguay and Panama and showed films of how the Marine Corp Navy worked together to attack the enemy. Meeting those foreign Marines from Brazil and Chile was really impressive because they were a lot like me. They had the same uniforms and basically the same weapons and just to see the influence that our country and the military has helped other nations safeguard their way of life was very impressive. Their officer corps, their uniforms and their medals was an eye-opener to me. So, my experience in the military was helpful as far as keeping things organized and just being disciplined.

Steve Estes:

Do you think you would have been career military if circumstances would have been different?

Mario Benfield:

No, because when I went into the military, I knew I just wanted a stepping-stone and that I would be progressing in life. I didn't see any kind of military career as being a life, a long-term life thing because you are always on call to battle, whether you are Army or Airforce, and who would want to be on call to battle for ten to twenty years, it just would be too stressful. I just wanted it as a stepping-stone. I did extend my enlistment by one year and it was by what they call [reading] extension of service was at the request and for the convenience for the government and I was at TVS and they asked me, "Can you extend one year, not three years or four years, which was the extension regulation, they wanted me just for one year so I could pull that weapons company together, this was after I had gone through that little commotion and when I left, the Colonel of my battalion was in to give me my separation he said, "Sergeant Benfield, everything you done was right." And that was it. This letter from the Colonel of my reconnaissance battalion mirrored the exact same thing, "Your performance of duty has been superb, and he is a polite well behaved young man. He is a fine Marine." And this was written to my father and mother. My dad was the dean of the law school at the University of Illinois at that time. I had come out in that battalion. If you go through life and especially the military, with a hidden thing, it frustrates you, it's a frustration so to lift the ban is going to lift our ability to operate, it will lift unit cohesion, it will lift a lot, because we are true to ourselves. To keep this policy in place is like murmuring and keeping secrets, which we can't do amongst ourselves, we need to know about ourselves so we can tackle the enemy.

Steve Estes:

Do you have anything that I didn't ask about that you want to talk about?

Mario Benfield:

No.

Steve Estes:

Thank you very much.

Mario Benfield:

Ok.

 
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  October 26, 2011
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