“I want those that are newly diagnosed to know that they are not alone and that HIV is not the end,” says Brian Ledford, who helps other newly poz people — especially those in the military — avoid the mistakes he made.
In 2008, Ledford successfully completed boot camp and joined the United States Marine Corps. “I went in knowing I was gay,” Ledford writes on his site, A Marine and HIV. “And [I] was proud of it.”
The Marine was also proud to serve his country. A few years later Ledford was on pre-deployment leave, when he received a call from his commanding officer, a lieutenant colonel. Knowing how unusual it is for a CO to contact a lance corporal personally meant being called back for a “legal” matter all that more frightening. Worse, Ledford was met on the runway by a duty noncommissioned officer who took him directly to the CO, who notified Ledford he was HIV-positive.
“I was mortified,” Ledford would later write. “I wanted to ask God what I had done to deserve this … [and] I had always told myself — since I realized I was gay at the age of 14 — that nothing like this would ever happen to me; and if it did then I would end it.”
Taken immediately to an appointment with an infectious disease doctor, Ledford was then unceremoniously relegated to his barracks, alone, as the rest of his company remained on leave. It was a difficult start, and it continued to be a rough time in his life, in part because of the military's strict conduct regulations regarding servicemen living with HIV. As Ledford details on his site, when he was unable to deal with his new status, he took off on unauthorized leave, spent several months in a military psych ward, and was eventually discharged from the Marines.
“I was also not very educated on the subject of HIV when I was diagnosed,” Ledford explains. “I believe this was a contributing factor in the time that I had adjusting. I took it upon myself to try and learn as much as I was able to that I was not ‘in the dark’ anymore.”
After a steep and scary learning curve, Ledford emerged emboldened as an activist and a blogger. “I have now been able to pass on some of the information that I have learned and help other people,” he tells Plus. “When first receiving a HIV diagnosis, many do not know where to turn or what to do. Not everyone has a support system of family and friends that they turn to, but they should not have to face this alone.” That’s why Ledford is so proud that A Marine and HIV has become a refuge, especially for other HIV-positive military personnel.
What really drives the North Carolina native now, Ledford says, is that while the rest of the world and most of the United States have taken steps to help fight the epidemic and erase the stigma that surrounds those living with the virus, the South is still falling behind in the fight. (Read why and what can be done.)
Some of that failure may lie in the area’s adoption of abstinence-only safer sex messages. “Let’s be real for a minute,” Ledford says. “Teaching youth to abstain from sex is like an Ostrich sticking its head in the sand. Avoiding the topic is not going to make it go away.”
According to Ledford, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services still offers grants to states and territories for teaching abstinence-based curricula in sex education classes; despite the fact that studies show these programs fail to produce desired results. Fortunately, Ledford says, Obama’s 2017 budget proposal would eliminate a $10 million-a-year grant program for abstinence-only education. In doing so, he says, President Obama has shown “his support for the sexual health of our nation’s youth.”
Thrilled to be one of the year’s amazing HIV-positive people, Ledford says, “Even helping just one person makes it worth it and makes me want to keep doing what I am doing.” But he’d still would like to grow his outreach to reach even more people. “I want to become even more active in the HIV community so that others can see that you are still able to live a normal happy life — even with HIV.”