By Matthew Hendley
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On Thursday, July 23, Air Force Staff Sergeant Tom Paniccia, 28, sat nervously on the set of ABC-TV's Good Morning America, resolutely blinking at the camera lights, his black hair combed back so tightly it looked painful. His mission that day ran counter to Air Force regulations. He was "coming out," announcing to his family, to his commander and to his colleagues at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, and to the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, that he was a homosexual. When co-host Joan Lunden asked what was on his mind, Paniccia's voice cracked, but he bravely spoke out.
"Well, Ma'am," he began, "what I really want to say is that the policy is very unfair, and maybe somebody like me coming on a show like this, I can somehow show people by assigning a human face to the issue. And maybe people will realize that gays like myself are just average people. You know, I'm hardworking. I try to do my job, and I'm proud to serve my country."
It was not grand and dramatic rhetoric, but the revelation will likely result in Paniccia's expulsion from the military. And when Lunden asked if he realized what he was getting himself into, he answered without hesitation, "Yes, Ma'am, I am prepared for it."
@body:Tom Paniccia is of average height, but he has a weightlifter's chest and a military-salute posture that looks uncomfortable in civilian clothing. With his Harry Connick Jr. haircut and sideways smile, he looks like he could play the role of "the Italian kid from Brooklyn" in a 1940s war flick. By all accounts, Paniccia is an exemplary airman, and in his 11 years in the Air Force, he received impossibly perfect performance evaluations. In 1982 his supervisor wrote, "A1C Paniccia is one of the finest and most capable airmen I have known. . . .He has unlimited potential and exceeds in all tasks." In 1985: "SrA Paniccia epitomizes the clean-cut airman that we all wish we had hundreds of." In 1987: "He is the best unit training manager in the Air Force." In 1991: "NCOs of this caliber will ensure a viable Air Force into the next century."
Paniccia has a fat packet of commendations, thank-you letters, fan mail from commanders. He was Noncommissioned Officer of the Year at a base in England, Training Systems Manager of the Year the next season, and in 1989 he reached the quarterfinals of the Twelve Outstanding Airmen of the Year program, which means best in the whole damned Air Force.
He specialized in overhauling training programs and was a hopeless workaholic, often working nights and weekends and volunteering beyond his responsibility. During Operation Desert Storm, he volunteered to ride escort for truck convoys of bombs and munitions headed for air bases in England from which airplanes bombed Iraq's Republican Guard. His commander wrote: "SSgt Paniccia's outstanding achievements and dedication as unit training manager were reflected by the 850MMS(T) successfully accomplishing the largest munitions movement in the United Kingdom since WW II." He was consistently promoted "below the zone," meaning ahead of his peers.
When he wasn't working, Paniccia ran for the track club, played on the softball team, was a lector in the Catholic church, organized base social functions, gave speeches as an Air Force good-will ambassador, financially supported foster children in Antigua and Bolivia, went to night school to get a GED and an associate's degree. He's working on a B.S. degree so he can qualify for officers' training school.
"He was always Mr. Personality," says his sister, Ann Dunning, "boisterous, but he never got in trouble." He grew up in Ticonderoga, New York, a small town near the Vermont border. His mother died of leukemia while he was a toddler, and his father didn't remarry until Tom was an adolescent.
"But we weren't the Cleaver family," his sister admits, and young Tom essentially ran away to the Air Force. In 1981, one month after his 17th birthday, he entered basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. A year and a half later, he was in Korea for a 13-month tour, was rotated stateside and then sent to England for four years before being stationed in Tucson.
Somewhere along the way, the young airman realized he was gay. He won't say when or where, for fear it could be used against him in court, but he recalls a late-night aborted conversation with his best friend, who has since left the Air Force.
They were driving home from a woman's house--the friend had been seriously dogging her--and there was snow on the ground. It was dark and quiet and safe, and Paniccia mustered up his nerve and blurted out, "I think I might be gay."
The friend quickly responded, "Close your eyes. Can you imagine kissing me?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Paniccia shot back.
"Then you're not gay," the friend pronounced, and the conversation ended.
@body:Tom Paniccia admits that he's "not into being gay," that he doesn't go to bars, or even drink, for that matter, and that he prefers long runs in the woods, "where it's so quiet I can listen to my own breathing." His co-workers have always jived him for being so damned straight. Since his coming out, the local gay media have chided him for not being gay enough.