For Sarah and Kelsey Cartmill, a dual military same-sex couple stationed at Travis Air Force Base, California, the road to marriage has not been easy. Since they met in 2012, acceptance through legislation, awareness, changes in thoughts and behavior have the couple counting its blessings.
Just 25 years ago, it was illegal to serve in the military as a homosexual. That was until 1993, when the Clinton administration approved Department of Defense Directive 1304.25 which enacted a rule known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
DADT was the official U.S. policy allowing homosexuals to serve in the military as long as they didn't reveal their identity or engage in any homosexual activity. For 18 years, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender service members had to serve in silence.
For Tech. Sgt. Sarah Cartmill, 60th Maintenance Squadron, precision measurement equipment laboratory supervisor, serving as a homosexual was stressful during that time.
"On a personal level, having to conceal my sexual preference had an adverse effect on me," said Sarah. "I was trying to learn my job and at the same time I wasn't able to let anyone know who I really was. Professionally, it sort of motivated me by working harder to be the best at my job."
Related: Military Family Life 101
Under the directive, over 13,000 service members were discharged because of their sexual preference from 1994 to 2011. Since its repeal, homosexual service members have been able to serve openly without fear of reprisal. The change was hard at first for those who had to serve under DADT.
"It was a relief because I knew and heard of people leaving the military for the same reason I was hiding," said Sarah. "I was still very reluctant to let anyone know my status because it was all so new."
In 2013, after the Supreme Court ruled the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional, the DoD announced it would extend spousal and family benefits for same-sex marriages. This meant that service members could marry someone of the same-sex and be authorized the same benefits of those in traditional marriages.
Benefits like housing, life insurance, medical and education were now an entitlement afforded to spouses no matter what their sexual orientation was. This was a turning point in the life of the Cartmill's. For Staff Sgt. Kelsey Cartmill, 60th Air Mobility Wing, Judge Advocate NCOIC of operations and training, marrying Sarah was now possible.
"We got married in 2013 in Washington D.C. because it was legal for same-sex couples to marry there," said Kelsey. "Despite more appeals by states and rulings by judges to come, we were determined to be a couple."
Sarah and Kelsey began their journey as a same-sex dual military family over five years ago. Since then, they've had four assignments, including a remote and even a cross training, the same trials and tribulations any other dual military couple would endure. What they've also endured is the uncertainty of how their marriage would be accepted from their family, friends and those they serve with.
"We're two very confident people so we're just fine with being ourselves," said Kelsey. "There's always going to be someone who doesn't approve of our lifestyle, and we've prepared ourselves to accept that."
Since the repeal of DADT, serving openly has been a welcomed blessing for those who just wanted to live normal lives according to Ashley Broadway-Mack, president of the American Military Partner Association (AMPA). Broadway-Mack lived in the shadows for 13 years as the same-sex partner of a service member under the threat of DADT. Her organization in now over 50,000K strong helping LGBT military families.
"Our organization supports LGBT military families," said Broadway-Mack. "This includes the service member, spouse, veterans, veteran spouses and children of veterans who identify as LGBT."
In the short period of time since the repeal, Broadway-Mack is pleased with the feedback she's received from her members. There's been an acceptance level that has made the transition more welcomed than expected.
"Of course there are some times where we receive information of some issues, over the last seven years we hear less and less of that, which is a great sign," said Broadway-Mack. "We hear constantly that our families are being welcomed just as any other military family would be welcomed."
Welcomed is exactly how Sarah and Kelsey would describe it. Every assignment they've had, the leadership, their coworkers and peers have treated them like anyone else.
"Our experience in the Air Force since we've married has been flawless," said Sarah. "Everyone has accepted Kelsey and me and that has made our journey so much easier."
Sarah attributes this attitude with the immediate proactive approach the Air Force took to inform members about the repeal of DADT and the expectations they put forth. In 2011, the Air Force devised a two-tier training approach to help airmen understand what is expected in a post-repeal environment.
"It should be a testament to the Air Force that they recognize you as an individual," said Sarah. "It has nothing to do with your sexuality, it all about the hard work and dedication you put into being an Airman."
Both Sarah and Kelsey have become involved with helping others who find themselves struggling to come out or take the leap to become a same-sex couple. During Sarah's remote assignment to Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, she helped lead the first ever pride month celebration. Although not typically the quiet introverted personality of Sarah, she felt it was extremely important to help those struggling with their identities and informing them of their benefits.
"I was really proud of Sarah because she put herself out there and that's not really her personality," said Kelsey. "She helped a lot of people during that time who otherwise may have not known exactly what to do."
Since arriving at Travis in 2017, their performance has been exemplary. Kelsey has been accomplishing work filling a position typically held by a senior non-commissioned officer, despite being a three level due to cross training.
"Kelsey is performing at a master sergeant level as a staff sergeant," said Captain Austin Holtsclaw, 60th Air Mobility Wing, Judge Advocate, chief of adverse actions. "We get taskers from the MAJCOM and 18th Air Force and there's nothing she can't figure out and get done. Her future is very bright, she can achieve whatever she desires."
Sarah is also a standout in her organization. Master Sgt. Danny Thomas, 60th Maintenance Squadron, test measurement diagnostic equipment flight chief, has known Sarah since she came in the Air Force in 2010. He was her instructor at technical school and was ecstatic when he found out they would be stationed together.
"She's a combination of the ultimate military professional and good-hearted person," said Thomas. "We tend to overstate a lot that a person will be a future chief master sergeant. When I say it about Sarah, it is absolutely true, I dread the day she doesn't work for me anymore."
In the five years since their marriage, Sarah and Kelsey have become closer due to the adversity they chose to face head on. Getting married took some time because of the legalities from appeals and rulings. It took the couple three trips to Washington D.C., just to make their marriage official. That determination to be a couple outweighed any resistance they would face.
"We kind of got married fairly quickly after we met compared to some people." Said Kelsey. "It's amazing how much we've grown as a couple throughout the years, each year we get stronger."
Sarah is thankful their persistence didn't detract them from getting married. There were several times where it would have been easy to give up, but instead, they worked harder to achieve their dream.
"It's beautiful when she comes home and I still get as excited now as I did five years ago," said Sarah. "I never get tired of seeing her smile, I picked the perfect person to spend the rest of my life with. If the person you want to be with means a lot to you, you'll do whatever it takes to make it happen."
As for now, Sarah and Kelsey plan to make a career of the Air Force and both aspire to make the rank of chief master sergeant one day. Sarah is an eight Technical Sergeant and Kelsey is a seven year Staff Sergeant with the line number for Tech. Sgt., well on their way to achieving the highest enlisted rank.
"We plan to retire as chiefs," said Sarah. "Our leadership has recognized us for the hard workers that we are. I love the Air Force, I love what I do."
Keep Up With the Ins and Outs of Military Life
For the latest military news, videos, tips on military family benefits and more, sign up for a free Military.com membership and have information delivered directly to your inbox.