Under fire near Hill 861 in Vietnam, Lance Cpl. Marshall Belmaine proved his mettle the way tough Marines always have, through bravery and loyalty.
As the North Vietnamese Army pounded U.S. positions near Khe Sanh with mortar fire that April 1967, Belmaine saw his right leg sliced open by shrapnel just before he spotted another Marine, mortally wounded, screaming in pain as he lay draped over a bush.
Crawling about 100 feet over napalm-scorched ground, Belmaine was hit in the left arm by AK-47 fire before he reached his fallen buddy.
Following two months on a hospital ship, Belmaine was sent back to his platoon, awarded a Purple Heart and hailed as a hero.
But as a member of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, the young enlisted man also harbored a secret.
"I followed the rules," said Belmaine, 64, who lives in Oakland Park. "It would have been easier to say that I had ax-murdered my grandmother than admit that I was gay."
This Veterans Day, as the controversy over the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy rages, the men and women of the Gold Coast chapter of American Veterans for Equal Rights, of which Belmaine is president, have never been more hopeful.
"The important thing is to give honor to every person, no matter what or who they are, willing to go into the military and perhaps die for their country," said AVER member Ken Morris, 68, who served more than 20 years in the Army and worked as a Broward County Elderly & Veterans' Services officer.
"We need to be treated equally, not as a sub-class in the military," said Belmaine. "We are making progress, certainly. But we would like to see the day when we serve openly, and without the behind-the-scene snickering and wisecracks."
The difficulty of the fight ahead was clearly outlined last week. President Obama has promised to eliminate the 1993 law that bans gays from serving openly in the military, suggesting there would be time for Congress to take action in December or January before Republicans take majority control of the House. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates also has urged Congress to act quickly.
But the new commandant of the U.S. Marines Corps said Saturday that now is the wrong time to overturn the law, citing the war in Afghanistan as one reason.
"There's risk involved; I'm trying to determine how to measure that risk," Gen. James Amos said. "This is not a social thing. This is combat effectiveness. That's what the country pays its Marines to do."
A 20-year-old high school drop-out in Ashland, Mass., Belmaine was about to be drafted in 1966 when he decided to follow a strong family tradition and join the Marine Corps.
Belmaine said he never worried that his sexual orientation made him less of a warrior than his comrades, even when he wasn't certain what his sexual orientation was. In state-side training, and after arriving in Vietnam in August 1966, he said he was teased for having effeminate mannerisms.
Belmaine also had a girlfriend back home, who wrote him daily.
Still, as he listened to the braggadocio of some of his fellow Marines, he began to face up to how different he was. Belmaine said he never once thought about having sex with his girlfriend. And he had yet to have sex with a man.
"That was the revelation," he said. "That was the moment that I said to myself, 'If I live, I am not going to live a lie.'"
Survival was never certain. The Marines took heavy losses in that battle near Khe Sahn, escaping the North Vietnamese onslaught only under the cover of fog. As Capt. Michael Sayers wrote in "U.S. Marines in Vietnam," the corps' official chronicle of the war: "We were carrying KIAs and WIAs in ponchos borne by four men to a litter. The heat deteriorated the bodies rapidly and they bloated fast. Almost impossible to carry in the dark, the mud, and the rain. Many times we stopped our march to retrieve a body that had fallen out of a poncho and rolled down a hill."
Belmaine said he picked up 16 rifles from Marines who fell that day.
Weeks before he was wounded, Belmaine was photographed in what would become an iconic image of that battle. In a snapshot taken by a buddy and printed in "Operation Buffalo: USMC Fight for the DMZ," a 1991 history by Keith William Nolan, the 20-year-old Belmaine sits atop a concrete bunker, his face etched with fatigue.
The photo caption reads "The Walking Dead," the term North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh used to predict the fate of 1st Battalion Marines.
Belmaine came home from Vietnam in August 1967, and served the rest of his enlistment in the Caribbean and at Fort Meade, Md. He was honorably discharged with the rank of sergeant in November 1969 and went home to Massachusetts and a series of blue-collar jobs.
While battling post-traumatic stress disorder, for which he has been hospitalized, Belmaine also became an activist. "As someone who put himself on line for the U.S.A., why do I and people like me not have the same rights as a straight soldier," said Belmaine, who in 1999 moved to South Florida with his partner of 41 years, Al Wakefield.
Jean Johnson, 76, of Hollywood said she might have made a career in the Air Force had she not been discouraged from reenlisting back in 1955. "You had to stay closeted if you wanted to stay in," said Johnson, retired from the real estate business. "We have not made as much progress as we should have."
Veterans such as Belmaine, Morris and Johnson now refuse to remain silent or invisible.
At 11 a.m. Thursday Belmaine will take part in a Veterans Day ceremony at Hagen Park, 2020 Wilton Drive, Wilton Manors. At 2 p.m. a color guard made up of AVER members will conduct a ceremony at the Wilton Manors Health & Rehabilitation Center, 2675 N. Andrews Ave., Fort Lauderdale.
"I don't have time to be depressed, or to live under a rock, peeking out from time to time," said Belmaine, who flies both the Stars and Stripes and his Marine Corps battalion flag outside his home. "You can't live under a rock forever."