CHICAGO -- Just as the U.S. military has softened its stance on gays, a chief hospital corpsman at Naval Station Great Lakes will face a trial by court-martial to fight a "fraternization" charge that stems from her relationship with a fellow Navy servicewoman she met online while deployed in Afghanistan.
Chief Petty Officer Sabrina Russell, 31, who was joined with her partner in a legal civil union last year, was charged last month with violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice "by wrongfully engaging in an unduly familiar personal relationship that did not respect differences in rank and grade," according to the Navy's charge sheet.
Her lawyer claims she is being discriminated against because of her same-sex partnership, despite the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" law that formerly prohibited gays from openly serving in the military.
"If there were a test case for stupidity, this would be it," said Eric Montalvo, a private lawyer based in Washington, D.C., who represents Russell.
"If someone gets selected to become an officer and they get married, it's OK to get married. They have a provision for that," he said. "This is exactly the same scenario."
At the base near North Chicago, Navy officials argue that the charge against Russell is not about her same-sex partnership, but instead reflects the violation of a long-held policy intended to discourage preferential treatment among the ranks. Under Navy code, senior enlisted personnel are not allowed to get romantically involved with junior personnel in the same command, regardless of sexual preference, a military spokesman said.
"It wouldn't make a difference if she was part of a heterosexual couple," said Lt. Matthew Comer, spokesman for Naval Service Training Command.
"All known cases of fraternization are investigated promptly, and members found in violation of this policy are held accountable regardless of orientation or gender," he added later, in a written response to questions.
The charge against Russell comes at a time when the military has made large strides in gay tolerance and acceptance, but still hasn't reached equality in its approach to same-sex couples, advocates say.
In February, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta extended some benefits to same-sex domestic partners of military service members but stopped short of providing health and housing benefits because of restrictions under the federal Defense of Marriage Act. The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on the 1996 federal act last week, as well as California's Proposition 8, the state's law banning same-sex marriage.
More unusual, some military experts said, is that Russell chose a court-martial -- at the risk of being kicked out of the military -- rather than accept a possibly less punitive option called nonjudicial punishment.
Russell and Petty Officer 1st Class Jodi Geibel, 31, first connected via Facebook in 2010, when Russell, on deployment in Afghanistan, was seeking information about working at Great Lakes, Montalvo said. At that time, both women shared the same rank and pay grade, he said.
But by the time Russell reported for duty for her new job at Great Lakes in February 2012, she had been promoted to chief. She and Geibel began formally dating the following July, the attorney said, but did not tell anyone at the base about their relationship, even after they entered into a civil union at the Lake County Courthouse in Waukegan in November and moved in together in far north suburban Hainesville.
The women declined to comment on the advice of their lawyer but allowed the Chicago Tribune to photograph them in their home. Both work under the Recruit Training Command, but they do not work alongside each other or have a senior-subordinate relationship, Montalvo said.
Their relationship was not causing any problems at the naval station, he said, until someone there looked at Russell's phone without permission, found a picture of the civil union ceremony and began circulating it around the base. At one point, someone displayed an 8-by-10-inch copy of the photo in Geibel's office, he said.
In January, the Navy command "received allegations of fraternization involving Chief Hospital Corpsman Sabrina Russell and a petty officer," said Comer, who confirmed the petty officer is Geibel. "Following a command investigation, Russell exercised her statutory right to refuse nonjudicial punishment and requested a trial by court-martial."
The women believe they have been targeted by other enlisted sailors on base who blamed them for reporting unrelated claims of sexual harassment, Montalvo said.
Russell allegedly violated the Navy fraternization policy between June and January, according to the formal charge against her.
Under Navy policy, "unduly familiar" relationships between a ranking member and his or her junior have the potential to undermine respect for authority. The policy defines fraternization as "gender-neutral" and is intended to avoid any perception of preferential treatment.
The code encourages "appropriate social interaction" to foster unit morale and includes sports team participation as an example. But it specifies activities that are prohibited between ranks, including "dating, shared living accommodations, intimate or sexual relations, commercial solicitations, private business partnerships, gambling and borrowing money."
Over the past year, the commanding officer at Great Lakes has held three staff members accountable for fraternization, Comer said. Those three cases involved heterosexual couples, all of whom are married today, he said.
In January, military personnel offered Russell and Geibel the choice of accepting nonjudicial punishment or appearing before a court-martial.
Geibel accepted the nonjudicial punishment and, as a result, was fined $2,000 and stripped of her job specialty as a recruit division commander. She could lose her rank, depending on her conduct over the next six months. Officials also took away a prestigious recognition as "Navy instructor of the year," Montalvo said, adding she is appealing the punishment.
Russell chose the court-martial, feeling strongly that she had done nothing wrong, he said.
No court date has been set, Comer said.
The penalties for fraternization vary depending on the severity of each case, but may include loss of rank and pay, possible discharge from the service or even jail time, he said.
Under the policy, fraternization "is not excused or mitigated by a subsequent marriage between the offending parties," Comer said.
Montalvo argues that there remains a double standard for same-sex couples who go on to marry and that they are treated more harshly than heterosexuals.
A conviction could carry over into the civilian criminal justice system as a misdemeanor, Montalvo said.
"It is life altering," he said. "It could potentially deprive her of military life benefits."
Russell's predicament is playing out one year after Naval Station Great Lakes welcomed what was believed to be the first gay-lesbian-bisexual support group on a U.S. military base. Sailors chartered the support group called GLASS -- or Gay, Lesbian and Supporting Sailors, which became the model for several others elsewhere in the world.
Despite the couple's claim that they are being discriminated against, some advocates for gay military rights say -- although they aren't familiar with this case -- that they haven't seen a pattern of discrimination against gays when it comes to fraternization charges.
"Fraternization has nothing to do with sexual orientation," said Zeke Stokes, spokesman for OutServe-SLDN, a Washington-based advocacy group for gay military personnel.
"It's a set of rules and regulations that exists for every service member at every level and are clearly communicated to them."
Stephen Peters, president of the American Military Partner Association, said that he found it unusual, though, that this couple were being charged because they are both enlisted members only one rank apart. Usually, the military has focused on fraternization between an officer with a much higher rank than the subordinate. He also had not heard of such cases against same-sex couples.
"This is the first time that I've been made aware of a situation where a couple is in a domestic partnership in that they are being pursued with fraternization issues," Peters said.
Both women are "rock-star sailors" who fear the long-term repercussions on their career and benefits, Montalvo said. Geibel has served 13 years with the Navy, and Russell has served for nearly 11.
They are raising two daughters, ages 5 and 3, from Geibel's former relationship with a Marine. He died while on active duty, Montalvo said.
The family has posted a sign at the entrance to their home that makes its views clear:
"Please leave your rank at the door."