Ashley Broadway-Mack never planned to become an advocate for LGBTQ military rights. But life as an Army wife married to a female soldier under the shifting Defense Department policy left her with two options: Stay silent or stand up for herself, her friends and her family.
She chose to stand up.
Broadway-Mack and her wife, Lt. Col. Heather Mack, were together for 15 years before they were legally married in Washington, D.C., in 2012. Before a change to the Defense Department policy known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT), which allowed gay and lesbian troops to serve so long as they did not do so openly, Broadway-Mack lived a life of secrecy when it came to the military. She cared for their son using a caregiver ID card that allowed her to get on base. To the Army world, she was the nanny.
But when DADT was repealed in 2010, all of that changed, and Broadway-Mack became an open member of the Army community.
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With that came plenty complications -- and backlash. In 2012, she tried to join the Fort Bragg Officers' Wives Club, but the club's board reacted to her application by altering their bylaws specifically to keep her out. To be a member, they changed their rules to state, an applicant must have a military ID card, something for which Broadway-Mack did not qualify because gay marriage was still against federal law.
The story, first reported on Military.com, went viral. And Broadway-Mack found herself in the spotlight. The club was eventually forced by base officials to offer a special membership and, in 2013 when federal law changed, officially opened the doors to all spouses, regardless of sexual orientation.
"What happened at Fort Bragg made me realize that what happened to me was happening to other people," she said. "I think it's important for people to understand -- my spouse was a lieutenant colonel. And it was like, if this is happening to someone of that rank, gosh only knows what's happening to a junior enlisted family."
With the help of the American Military Partner Association (AMPA), Broadway-Mack took a stand, ultimately becoming the organization's volunteer president and making a sizable impact on both the rights and visibility of LGBTQ military members and their families.
It is for that work that Broadway-Mack has been selected as a finalist for the Military.com 2019 Spouse Changemaker of the Year award. Her tireless volunteer work on behalf of LGBTQ military families worldwide has impacted policy, increased cultural education, encouraged fair treatment and, perhaps most importantly, ensured that thousands of troops and family members know that they are not alone.
Broadway-Mack said digging deep to stand for what she believes to be right has always been a part of who she is.
"For myself, I think it somewhat comes naturally because my mom can tell you, I grew up always wanting to help the underdog," she said. "Once we realized, after DADT, there were so many inequalities throughout the military, it wasn't about me, but it was like this can't happen to people, this is just not right."
It's now been more than eight years since the repeal of DADT and almost six years since the change to federal law, but Broadway-Mack said her work -- and the work of AMPA -- is more important than ever. The organization has worked to fight a recent change to policy surrounding transgender troops, and it continues to offer support for same-sex couples across the DoD as they face various barriers.
Broadway-Mack said that, while she sees herself as a changemaker, she does not make the change alone.
"Here's the deal: There's no way that I would be where I am at, or make the changes I did, or have the strength, the fire, the will to make those changes, to advocate, to use my voice, to deal with the good, the bad, the ugly, all the threatening emails, if it wasn't for those that worked with me and, most importantly, those that supported me and had my back," she said.
Key among those, she said, is her wife, Heather.
"A lot of times, she doesn't get the recognition or notice she deserves. For her job, she has to stay out of it," Broadway-Mack said. "But at the end of the day, if you asked her, she would say that she's proud of what I've done because -- and she's mentioned to me before -- what I've done is what she was taught as the values of the Army, of what you're supposed to do for your soldiers, for your peers and for the institution itself."