To show his pride, Phillips has marched for years in New York's Veterans Day parade. He also is a regular at another annual event: New York City's gay pride parade.
Now, at 81, the former actor is watching from the sidelines as gay rights advocates fight legislative and legal battles to repeal the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy that bars gays from serving openly.
"Our ancestors came to this country to escape persecution, and now many European militaries allow gays to serve without major disruptions. Yet here in America we're not doing that," Phillips said in a phone interview with AOL News. "It's astonishing to me."
Phillips is among hundreds of thousands of gay men and lesbians who have served in the military and hope this Veterans Day will be the last during which their younger counterparts must serve in the closet.
Gary Gates, a demographer at UCLA's Williams Institute and a leading expert on the gay and lesbian community, used data from the Census Bureau and another survey to estimate that there were about 720,000 gay military veterans in 2009. He estimates there are currently 66,000 gays in the military, or 2.2 percent of the force. The largest number live in California, Florida, Texas, New York and Georgia.
In 1987, Phillips was part of the first group of gay veterans to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. He recalls the icy stares from tourists standing nearby. "Some people actually turned their backs on us. ... I felt like, You don't know who I am, how can you do that to me," he said. "Who knows? Maybe the unknown soldier was gay."
"A reminder that I did it"
This year marked the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. Phillips still wears his dog tags.
They remind him of "everyone who served. It goes back to the people who fought in the American Revolution and who are fighting now in Afghanistan," he said. "It's a reminder that I did that."
The dog tags also remind him of a fraternity roommate at the University of West Virginia. The young officer, who had recently married, was killed in Korea.
Phillips was a graduate student studying theater when he heard the news. His student status made him exempt from the draft, but, he said, "I thought I should do something." He enlisted in the Army over the objections of his father back home in Elkins, W.Va. Having known since he was 17 that he was gay, the 22-year-old lied on the enlistment form, just as gays and lesbians still do today.
He was trained as a foot soldier and sent to the front line two days after landing in Inchon in April 1953. He came under enough North Korean mortar and artillery fire to earn a combat infantry badge but was soon sent to company headquarters when his commanding officer learned he knew how to type.
"I don't claim to be a hero," said the veteran, who was stationed just north of today's DMZ. "I was just doing what other guys there were doing."
The young sergeant shared sandbag bunkers, tents and Quonset huts with other soldiers, but the lack of privacy "was not a problem." He kept a photo of a "girlfriend" from college on his footlocker so no one would get suspicious. "I acted all my life," he said of his pretense at being straight.
Only once did Phillips confide his secret, telling his company commander. "He reached over and took my hand and said, 'It's OK, buddy, this is between you and I." It was a tremendous relief. He was straight, but he was understanding -- there were people back then who were."
But the young lieutenant was the exception. Phillips recalls two men in his unit who were dishonorably discharged after being caught together. Only on a leave in Tokyo, when he ran into dozens of closeted service members in a gay bar, did he acknowledge his sexual orientation.
When Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told senators earlier this year that the military's policy on gays "forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens," Phillips could relate.
He recalled how when he came down with malaria in Korea, it was a black sergeant who carried him to a Jeep and took him to the hospital. The Korean War marked the first time black troops served alongside whites. For years, opponents of desegregation had argued that blacks would ruin morale and unit cohesion, a line of reasoning often heard now in the debate over gays in the military.
"If somebody's protecting your back," whether they are black or gay, Phillips learned in Korea, "who cares?"
"Glad to be home"
Phillips spent 10 months in Korea, most of it after the war had ended. He sailed home on the troop ship General J.H. McRae in the spring of 1954. As the sun rose over New York Harbor on the Friday before Easter, Phillips and 2,000 other soldiers stood at attention on the ship's deck and saluted as an Army band played "Yankee Doodle" and "The Caissons Go Rolling Along."
"We sailed past that grand old lady, the Statue of Liberty. I was not the only soldier to view her welcoming torch through a blur of tears," Phillips later wrote. Recalling the moment 56 years later, he still chokes up. "I was glad to be home," he said.
Phillips headed home to Elkins, where his 103-year-old mother still lives. He was given an honorable discharge and finished school before heading to New York to launch an acting career in TV and theater. Today, he believes that every young person should do national service because of what he learned in the military. "It teaches you discipline, how to work with other people, even basic hygiene," he said.
Phillips divides his time these days between upstate New York and Florida. An advocate for gay seniors, he writes a blog and has spoken publicly about the need to expand broadband to older Americans.
"People are saying Obama is reneging on his promise. I don't think so," he said. "It's smart not to be doing an executive order that could be overturned. This has to go to the Supreme Court."
Phillips has faith that even a conservative-leaning court will someday allow gays to openly serve their country.
"I would make a hell of a noise" when that happens, he said. "I probably will cry my heart out. If that would happen in my lifetime, that would be extraordinary."