Thanksgiving Behind Bars

Stephen Funk, a gay marine reservist, serves six months in the brig

Funk’s mother, Gloria Pacis, called his sentence “a gross injustice.” She also said that she prefers her son in jail rather than facing combat in Iraq or elsewhere. Pacis is unequivocally opposed to the war in Iraq and is a peace activist who regularly appears at anti-war rallies and demonstrations denouncing the foreign policy of the Bush administration.

The weekend of November 14, a delegation of New Yorkers, including Pacis, drove 10 hours to North Carolina to visit Funk at a Marine brig located at Camp Lejeune.

Pacis and four other visitors were allowed to enter the military base and visit Funk.

While they did so, a group of roughly two dozen anti-war protesters assembled in Jacksonville, Camp Lejeune’s neighboring town, and picketed passing cars and residents. Protesters held up signs, some of which said “Bush Lies, Soldiers Die,” and received a mixed reaction from passersby in the largely military town.

The greater Jacksonville area is largely comprised of a young male population, most of whom work or reside on military property.

Not unlike any number of military communities around the nation, Jacksonville’s economic health rests squarely on the income it receives from the thousands of Marines and visitors who frequent the town’s retail establishments.

According to Pacis, the last time Stephen Funk was at Camp Lejeune after graduating from boot camp in California, he was on the base learning how to conduct airborne landings.

A line of cars, not unlike the queues entering one of Manhattan’s river tunnels during rush hour, snaked off Route 17 and onto Camp Lejuene. Many motorists were Marines returning to duty after leave.

After a short wait at the visitors’ center, the five visitors drove in their own car under military escort onto the main road of the base. Apparently, the Jacksonville police had alerted the base that Gloria Pacis had arrived in North Carolina with the protesters who were given an official permit to assemble and picket.

At no time on Camp Lejeune were visitors not under the supervision of military officials. Taking photographs was prohibited as was interviewing personnel and residents on the base. It was clear that base officials would allow Funk his mandatory three-hour visit after which his five visitors would be promptly escorted back onto civilian territory.

The brig at Camp Lejeune is a rather nondescript brick structure built in 1968, during the height of the Vietnam War, whose iron-slatted windows appear foreboding, but is otherwise not unlike any number of other structures dotting the residential spaces of Camp Lejeune. Situated in an industrial-zoned area, the brig sits next to housing for the company of Marines who work in the prison and specialize in the incarceration of service members found guilty of violating the Military Code of Justice.

After signing a log book, and handing over official identification, three visitors from the Funk delegation, including his mother, passed through a magnetometer.

In one corner of the building’s lobby, past the sound-proof glass of a command post, a Marine swung open bars and visitors of the various Marines held inside walked into a holding area, past a steel door and down a short hall into the most benign of environments—the brig cafeteria, or mess deck, as the Marines on patrol referred to it when speaking into their radios.

Stephen Funk sat at one of the tables, smiling as his mother entered the room. All seats and tables were bolted to the floor. The setting was not unlike that of lunchroom at a factory, except that here, four Marines, three spaced along the perimeter of the room, one seated at a guard desk at the entrance, closely supervised the goings-on.

Funk wore a bright orange jump suit and standard issue green T-shirt underneath. He explained that those detainees who wore light blue jumpsuits were Marines awaiting their court martials. All the Marines, detained or on duty, wore spit-shined black jump boots.

During his absence from training, as the nation geared up for war, Funk gave a news conference in which he denounced his Marine Corps training as promoting the wanton killing of innocents. Shortly thereafter, he filed papers to claim conscientious objector status. Eventually, he was charged with desertion, but was acquitted and found guilty of the lesser-included charge of being absent with authorization.

For all his disavowals of allegiance to the military, as long as he resides in the brig, Stephen Funk is still a Marine, and as such, even in captivity, he is part of the time-honored, albeit heterosexually-oriented traditions peculiar to Marines.

Funk divulged his sexual orientation at his press conference as the nation coped with going to war, but despite two months of detention by a military with official sanctions against open homosexuality, he was in remarkably good spirits. He smiled regularly throughout the visit and cracked some jokes. He also displayed a streak of defiance that perhaps is hallmark of his decision to join the Marines in the first place, considering his upbringing by a single mother who encouraged her three children to actively question authority.

When asked if there were other gay detainees in the brig, Funk seemed to shrug off the question, and replied, “I guess, but I don’t go around asking about that.”

Most of the time during the visit, Funk spoke with his mother and shared various laughs with her, including an inside joke about the time Funk sponsored Pal Joey, a toy figurine, for class president, a notion that seems to have attracted a cult-like following among his former classmates.

Funk came across as the bright, optimistic dreamer his mother had described him to be during several interviews before the visit. He expressed a desire to attend the University of California at Berkeley as well as take up several supporters on their written offer for a free day of skydiving.

The outspoken resister was on display, as was the shy, diffident young man unsure of his plans after the military discharges him, dishonorably, flowing his prison term. With good behavior, Funk expects that to be some time in February.

With Thanksgiving arriving, Funk appeared nonplussed that he would spend the holiday miles away from loved ones. He reported that he receives mail regularly, some of it from supporters in Europe and elsewhere who agree with his stance that the United States had no moral or legal justification for invading Iraq.

“I spend my time organizing the letters to keep from getting bored,” he said. “Tell people to send pictures. That helps.”

Funk said that early on, one of the Marines who patrol the brig referred to him as “Grab-ass” and made derogatory remarks and ordered Funk to do menial tasks. There was also the time that he had to take showers while he was handcuffed.

Now, he reports, maybe because of the level of notoriety his case has gained, he is mostly left alone. As part of his daily labor chores, Funk sweeps up shavings in a wood shop in the brig.

He kidded his mother about being an instigator after he reported that the day before the visit, brig officials called him into an office and asked if his mother planned to start trouble.

“They told me that I would be responsible if you did that,” he told Pacis.

Funk’s black hair is longer than the buzz cut he sported in the initial photos during the 47 days when he refused to report for training at San José, California last spring. Faint patches of acne brush his cheeks.

He shifted between jocular expressions and more somber, introspective moments when his face clouded over, and he appeared reluctant to discuss how he felt about his incarceration.

When Funk showed up for duty after his absence, after giving a news conference that aired on national TV, filing papers as a conscientious objector, and coming out of the closet, military officials began proceedings against him for his failure to report for duty.

Ultimately, that unauthorized absence, or UA, got Funk six months in the brig. He was not charged under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy that prohibits service members from serving openly. He was charged with desertion.

Funk’s attorney, Steve Collier, who is gay, is a California-based attorney. In an interview before the North Carolina visit, Collier responded, “How do you appeal an acquittal?” when asked if he planned to fight for his client’s early release.

For her part, Pacis resents having to pay Collier $10,000 for a defense she considers perfunctory at best. Funk confirmed that since the New Orleans court martial proceeding, he has not spoken to his attorney.

With military punctuality, the same military police officer who escorted the civilian car to the brig was waiting precisely at 3 p.m. to escort the party of five visitors to the entrance of Camp Lejeune.

Gloria Pacis got to spend the last several minutes with Funk alone.

When she came out to the reception area, she reported the last thing Stephen told her.

“He said that had he known all this, he would have come out before and never joined the military,” she said. “He could have avoided all this.”

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