Tanner White speaks with a reassuring calm and a slight Texan accent. He's taller than average, makes good eye contact and responds openly.
And while he might seem like the typical young sergeant in a county that houses more than 60,000 service members, he is set apart -- but he isn't alone.
Diagnosed with HIV at 19, the now 24-year-old active duty Marine is battling through education the stigma of "uncleanliness" attached to an HIV diagnosis.
"Honestly I was scared as soon as I found out I may be HIV positive. I thought the Marine Corps was going to force me out. But I learned that I could stay in and even be promoted," White said, noting some limitations. "(HIV positive service members) have to be in supportive units, and we can't have any special assignments: no combat instructor, recruiter, drill instructor, or Marine security guard.
"It's upsetting that I can't deploy or go on special duty, but I am still in and I still have a career."
White said that he found out he was HIV positive when he was 19 after attempting to donate blood to The Red Cross. He soon received a call explaining that he tested positive for the virus and his results had been sent to his chain of command.
The embedded medical service took the names of everyone that White had sexual relations with within the previous year and contacted each individual to inform them of White's HIV status.
"There have been times when other Marines refused to go out on a cruise with me, didn't want to shake my hand, or didn't want to use the same restroom as me. They were worried about what would happen if I cut myself; they didn't want to take risks," White said of his experience as a Marine radio operator. "The majority of the stigma comes from not being educated on how HIV is spread or how one becomes infected."
Ultimately, this stigma defines an individual by their HIV status, their sexuality and their lifestyle without accounting for human individuality or service to the country.
And within the Marine Corps, this stigma and the subsequent bullying that can follow suit is unethical and illegal under the highest code of law within that branch.
According to Marine Corps Equal Opportunity Manual, "The policy of the Marine Corps is to provide equality of treatment and the opportunity for all Marines to achieve their full potential based solely upon individual merit, fitness, and ability. Discrimination undermines morale, reduces combat readiness, and prevents maximum utilization and development of the Marine Corps' most vital asset, its 'people.' Such unacceptable conduct, if uncorrected, will eventually poison a unit's cohesion and morale."
White said that his command is "pretty good" about stamping out any harassment, and that some of his command does this for equal opportunity reasons and some do out of compassion.
"Like right now, I want to be a recruiter but I can't because it's an order. And not being competitive for these special assignments may give the military a reason to eventually force me out," White told The Daily News recently.
As of March 2016 there have been 12 newly reported cases of HIV infections in Onslow County and 410 cases in North Carolina this year, according to the HIV/STD Surveillance Unit (HSSU) quarterly report.
Onslow County HIV statistics make up 2.93 percent of North Carolina's total HIV-positive population, which is a 50 percent increase in the number of new cases since March 2015.
White started the nonprofit A Positive Tomorrow in November 2012 to educate the public on HIV transmission, testing and treatment, to provide a support system for anyone affected by the virus and to end the stigma surrounding HIV.
"One of the ways to end the stigma is through education," White said. "I saw a need to be open about my HIV status and a need for the nonprofit. I'm the type of person that tries to help everyone else, and this is just one more way that I'm doing that."
A Positive Tomorrow has set an initial fundraising goal of $10,000 to begin a comprehensive support group, develop educational programs for local health facilities and rent office space.
"The immediate need is $1,100 to pay off start up lawyer fees. We're also doing a T-shirt sale for three more weeks. Donations and shirt (transactions) can be made online," said White, the president and CEO of A Positive Tomorrow.
Throughout the fundraising effort, White will complete a series of challenges once a certain amount of donations have been raised, including:
- $500 Ice Tub Challenge
- $1,000 Hot Wax Challenge
- $2,500 Karaoke Challenge
- $5,000 Eat It or Wear It Challenge
- $10,000 Ghost Pepper Challenge
A Positive Tomorrow is also hosting a Color Me Red 5K that will be held on Nov. 19 at Jacksonville Commons.
While White is working to raise awareness in the community, area patients can be tested here but treatment services are not provided locally.
Pamela Brown, community relations officer for the Onslow County Health Department, said that HIV positive patients are referred to a disease intervention specialist in Greenville or Wilmington.
"We offer treatments for STDs at the health department, but once that patient is (referred) to the disease intervention specialist we really don't see them. HIV is a bit complex and may need a lifetime of medication so it goes to a more specialized clinic," Brown said.
The Onslow County Health Department offers free HIV testing for residents, along with some limited resources and educational materials.
For more information on the resources, contact the Onslow County Health Department communicable disease nurse at 910-347-2154, ext. 3904.
To contact A Positive Tomorrow about available support groups or educational materials, call 910-378-9127 or visit APositiveTomorrow.org.