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Tales of War

By Sanford E. Gaylord

November/December 2003

Tales of War

I am a United States citizen, born in the South and raised in what has become known as the world's richest nation and only superpower by the start of the twenty-first century. Although I am a U.S. citizen, all of my life I have heard about rumors of war, taught about war in school, seen it firsthand and been part of war. In my childhood and youth I was instructed what to do in case of nuclear war, while coming of age during the Cold War.

One can never really understand the tragedy, horror, or the impacts of war unless you have been affected by it, lived it or were unfortunately a casualty of war. It can leave you riddled with scars mentally and physically that seem as though they will never go away. It can destroy relationships and haunt you to the grave.

In the last two decades of the twentieth century, we saw war televised live as the world was informed about HIV and the threat that it posed to humankind. The Persian Gulf War and Operation Desert Storm gave us minute-by-minute details of war twenty-four hours a day. Although that war was declared over in record time, I think that it kept simmering for another ten years as sanctions were placed over Iraq.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks caused a rippling effect throughout the U.S. and the world. Complacency and denial were shattered on that day, as well as the lives and households of many Americans and others across the globe. It was a time where testing positive had a new meaning. In America, for a brief moment in time, we went from AIDS to anthrax, although we had been at war with HIV for twenty years. With both diseases, we learned how it is transmitted. Many people were wearing latex gloves because they feared HIV the way they wear masks in Asia to combat and protect themselves from SARS today.

At nearly a million dollars a missile and carte blanche approval of funds to fight Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan was bombed daily once America struck back and declared a global war on terrorism. Afghanistan was already a war-devastated country and we still are not sure where Osama Bin Laden is to date. During this conflict, my concern grew that we might have lost focus with a war at home on U.S. soil that many of us in the trenches have been fighting since the very beginning.

There were severe thunderstorms here in Chicago the night that special broadcasts announced in all forms of media, throughout the world, that the U.S. and its Coalition was at war with Iraq. War ignited again this year due to alleged weapons of mass destruction. Thousands of million-dollar cruise missiles were launched on Iraq. Operation Iraqi Freedom began at the cost of our own civil liberties and freedom we may take for granted.

Iraq is allegedly liberated now, in part because of another round of million dollar cruise missles and hundreds of millions of dollars spent for the campaign. The conflict is over but now Iraqi citizens and others who have been affected by the war will have to try to rebuild shattered lives. The world still waits to see evidence of weapons of mass destruction and if Saddam Hussein is alive or has perished.

The war that haunts me is the war with HIV. The bloodiest war for me is this one, because it is constant and there is no foreseeable end. As a young adult, I was drafted into a war that was declared on humankind over twenty years ago. I was placed on the frontline over thirteen years ago when HIV invaded my body. I saw the tragedies of war as I lost one friend after another to HIV and attended tearless funerals that had brimstone overtones from the pulpit. I have gone from youth to middle age with HIV inside of me. A daily war that rages within that has me fighting for ground mentally and physically.

War is not a pretty thing. When you are at war, the last thing you would want to concern yourself with is being attacked by your allies or within your ranks. Under the Clinton administration, we were given tools that combatted homophobia to a degree and at least funds and acknowledgment that HIV/AIDS had become a critical issue. However, it took years after the discovery of the virus that we know as HIV to be acknowledged by President Reagan.

Flashback with me for a moment. Do you recall how it wasn't long after George W. Bush took the office of President that Chief of Staff Andrew Card informed the U.S. society that the Office of National AIDS Policy, that was created under the Clinton administration, would be closed? The announcement sent a message to the American people that AIDS was over and that was far from the truth, especially within communities of color.

George W. Bush, through his Press Secretary, Ari Fleischer, released a statement expressing that the office would continue under the Bush administration and that Mr. Card's statement was made in error. I never stopped wondering how much truth there was in the initiative to close the office in the first place. I also wondered what would have happened if activists hadn't gone on red alert and raised hell about the statement and implications behind such a move from a president with a fundamentalist Christian ideology.

This Spring, individuals working in HIV/AIDS prevention and research talked among themselves and online about rumors of old McCarthy-era tactics and witch-hunts. The news eventually made The New York Times and other forms of media but we cannot forget about this particular attack because it has the potential to take us back to the dark days of the eighties when HIV declared war on humanity.

Many organizations that are involved in a variety of HIV prevention research and social service programs targeted to educate and prevent the spread of HIV are in essence under attack. Many of these organizations rely primarily on funding from the federal government. When you apply for federal funding, you have to be very specific and be able to produce data.

In the reports from The New York Times, the American public was informed that if you correspond with the National Institutes of Health you shouldn't use words like men-who-have-sex-with-men, anal sex, gay, lesbian or transgender without the risk of possibly being audited or failing to obtain grant funding. How can you apply for money when you can't be specific about the population that is most affected? Must we live in gilded cages of shame?

All of war, with its major loss of life, dignity, justice, and civil liberties affects all of humankind. Is this a nightmare? Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, propaganda, or the truth shattering the denial that is thrown constantly at us to keep us numb and in some cases dumb? People of color are now at greatest risk globally for HIV/AIDS. I pray my nightmare about the end of races of people does not become a reality in my lifetime. There is no country on the planet that has reported a case of HIV that can say that they have stopped the spread, only slowed its advance on humankind.

Since the second war in Iraq concluded, the office of Homeland Security raised its terror alert to the second highest level because of renewed risk of terrorist attacks. What about having a security advisory system on HIV/AIDS? If there were, it would be at the highest level. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control indicates that there are close to 950,000 individuals living with HIV in the U.S. and that a quarter of them may not be aware of their HIV status.

There is also an estimated 40,000 new infections a year and in these days, how many people don't know of at least one person who has been infected or affected by HIV/AIDS? What do we do as a superpower when we don't have men or women to fight for our freedom, our lives, and those of our children? What do we do when we need to liberate some oppressed people or continue the war on terrorism and can't because we've lost men and women with the War on AIDS on our own soil, maybe by our own hands?

All Americans, all of humankind needs to be united, not only against terrorism, we need to focus on the fact that we have already been engaged in a war for twenty years with HIV. We need to learn from our past to protect and ensure that there will be a future for all of humankind.

Sanford E. Gaylord is an actor and writer based in Chicago. He is a contributing writer and columnist for Windy City Media Group's Blacklines and Windy City Times periodicals.

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