Copy Berg

Vernon E. Berg III was the eldest son of Navy Commander Vernon E. Berg, Jr., one of the most respected officers in the Navy's chaplain corps. The senior Berg had been equally revered in the civilian ministry, as a preacher who touched people's souls. His sermons changed lives, they said of Vernon E. Berg; he was charismatic, and no one could believe how much his namesake resembled his father. Their childhood photographs were indistinguishable. As young Vernon grew into his full 5-foot, 9-inch frame and his hair turned sandy blond, he was still the carbon copy of his dad, right down to the deep blue eyes and second-tenor voice, which was why they called him Copy. And they were extraordinarily close, to the point that Copy knew what his father was thinking just by looking at him, as if they were the same person. They did virtually everything together until the commander went to Vietnam in 1967 to minister to the Marines.

Copy began establishing his own track record of being a winner then. He was not just another track letterman at Frank W. Cox High School; he was also student-body president. At Boy's State, he was not just a delegate, he was a candidate for governor. At Boy Scout Troop 422, he was not simply another Life Scout, he was AlowatSikima, Chief of Fire, the top position of the elite Order of the Arrow fraternity for the entire Chesapeake Bay area. Whenever local chapters of the Lion's or Rotary or Optimist's Clubs needed a good teenager to speak, they trotted out Copy Berg.

With its lackluster architecture and landscaping, Norfolk Naval Station had the nondenominational look of all military installations. Inside the gate, past the navy blue jet fighter that seemed to fly out of the ground on iron legs, were signs of a moment of glory that had touched the site once, when an exposition there had featured pavilions from every state in the nation. A two-third-scale reproduction of Independence Hall still stands from that time, not far from the stately row of admirals' homes. Other than this Colonial touch, there was little about the place that spoke of its role as the capital of the United States Navy.

On an unseasonably cold and windy January morning in 1976, however, it was clear by the number of reporters descending on the place that something important was happening. Uniformed guards politely directed members of the media to a two-story red brick building, one of three identical buildings surrounding a dusty courtyard. Inside, under the fluorescent lights of a hearing room, an administrative board took up the case of Ensign Vernon E. Berg III, the first officer in the history of the Navy to say he was a homosexual and wanted to stay in the military.

While the attorneys dug into their law books, Copy worried about whether his father would make the trip to Norfolk when the separation hearing began. His lawyers were unanimously opposed to having the senior Berg appear. No one was sure what he would say. He could hurt Berg's case if he came down on the side of the antigay regulation.

Copy did not think his father would hurt his case. On one level, he appreciated the significance of walking into the hearing alongside his father, a career Navy man like those who would be judging him. This, however, was an almost trivial consideration in comparison with the main issue. He could stand losing his bond with the service, but he could not stand losing his father. It would be like losing a part of himself.

As the date of the hearing neared, he awaited word from Chicago; finally it came. When did the hearing start? Commander Vernon Berg asked Ensign Vernon Berg when he finally called. He wanted to be there.

The climax of the eight-day hearing occurred the next morning when a sandy-haired Navy commander took the stand. His dress blue uniform only highlighted the striking resemblance the man bore to the defendant. On his chest, among all the other ribbons Commander Vernon Berg, Jr., had accumulated during the course of his career, was the Bronze Star he had won when he almost died ministering to Marines during the Tet offensive. In the middle of the red, white, and blue ribbon was the letter V - for valor. Berg's Navy lawyer, Lieutenant John Montgomery, asked the chaplain about his experiences with gay sailors.

"A person is a person," Berg began. "I really have felt strained in this whole hearing about people saying homosexuals have different problems. They have the same problems as anybody else. A homosexual can perform badly or spectacularly well. Homosexuals that I have known in the military have done extremely well, getting to extremely high ranks after I first met them."

"Are you saying that you know of homosexuals who are officers in the United States Navy today?" Montgomery asked.

"Certainly," the chaplain answered.

"Do you know any of them of the rank of commander?"

"Certainly."

"The rank of captain?" Montgomery asked.

"Certainly."

"The rank of rear admiral?"

"Yes, sir," Berg said. The room fell utterly silent while the chaplain continued. "Therefore, I would like to interject that I think it behooves all of us to look at what we do. We condemn blindly with prejudice and, you know, we must be careful whom we condemn."

When Montgomery asked about Berg's experience as a chaplain to Marine units in Vietnam, the commander said that at least once a week one or another Marine would come to him and admit to being gay. He also acknowledged, somewhat painfully, what he would have done not too long before if a commander had sent him a gay soldier.

"This week has been a learning experience for me," the elder Berg said, "and I'm sure it has been for all of us. I'm a product of Navy society also, and, sadly to say, years ago in 1960, '61, '62, I would have told him carte blanche, 'If you are a homosexual, you had better get out'."

The world was changing, he added, looking toward his son. "We are advancing into an age of enlightenment. Hopefully, that will make such inquisitions unnecessary in the future."

The elder Berg walked down the aisle of the hearing room as Lieutenant Artis began reading from the Navy's regulations on homosexuals again: "Under 'Policy,' paragraph four, it's very clear, very insistent, the way I read it...."

The voice faded into background noise as Copy watched his father walk from the stand. Commander Berg had rarely discussed his Vietnam experiences, and now Copy could see why. A part of the chaplain still grieved for the dying Marines he had held in his arms. Copy had never seen his dad so emotional; he had never seen him so mortal; he had never loved him more.

When Copy focused again on the proceeding, he was consumed with resentment that the officers could so roundly ignore what his father had just said and so easily slip back into quoting SECNAV instructions. There were many things that would long anger Copy Berg about the hearing, but nothing more than a board that asked a man to resurrect the most painful moments of his life and then answered him with quotes from a rule book.

There was a second painful understanding Copy came to that day. He had learned for the first time what his father thought of homosexuals there, in a hearing room in answer to a lawyer's questions, because he had not had the courage to ask such questions himself.

Copyright 1995 ApolloMedia (tm) Corporation. All rights reserved.
Copyright 1993 Randy Shilts. Copyright 1994 Estate of Randy Shilts. All rights reserved.
Published by arrangement with St. Martin's Press.