For nearly three decades, extraordinary Americans who exemplify the themes and ideals laid out in the State of the Union address have been invited to join the First Lady in her viewing box.
Feb. 12 I received the honor of representing military families in the First Lady’s box.
That's amazing considering less than two years ago under the policy known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) I wasn’t able to even exist. Since then, I joined a group of courageous gay and lesbian spouses to brief Pentagon officials, co-founded a national LGBT military family organization, witnessed the repeal of DADT and married the love of my life. She was promoted to Brigadier General, and I went from invisible to “out” in a very public way.
I was humbled and appreciative of this invitation and knew I was sitting in the First Lady’s box to represent every service member’s desire that his or her family is supported. Military life is unpredictable and there is great comfort in knowing that family support is a basic tenant for military leaders.
My thoughts that evening were in particular on Karen Morgan who recently lost her wife Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan to cancer and on Staff Sgt. Tracy (Dice) Johnson, whose wife Staff Sgt. Donna Johnson was killed Oct. 1 by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan.
I felt like I represented all military families, not just same-sex military families. Because until we are all equal none of us are equal: our families are treated differently.
My wife has served our country in the Armed Forces for more than 26 years and is denied feeling any comfort that I would receive military support if there came a day when I needed it the most. Despite her exemplary service she could not extend any benefits to her family, unlike her straight peers.
The family support situation is beginning to change for the better. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced Feb. 11 that “It is a matter of fundamental equity that we provide similar benefits to all of those men and women in uniform who serve their country. Taking care of our service members and honoring the sacrifices of all military families are two core values of this nation. Extending these benefits is an appropriate next step under current law to ensure that all service members receive equal support for what they do to protect this nation."
This Department of Defense announcement sends a powerful message that that all military families matter. I am grateful to President Obama, the Pentagon, and our allies for their support.
This is a tremendous start that will provide tangible support to families no later than October, 2013. This support includes areas such as Dependent ID cards, commissary and exchange privileges, Youth and Family programs, child care, legal assistance and Joint Duty Assignments.
Despite this powerful message, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) still relegates our military families to second-tier status in other support systems. I applaud the DoD's intent to recognize the words "spouse" and "marriage" irrespective of sexual orientation when DOMA is no longer applicable as it reflects a commitment to equal dignity and respect. I support the Pentagon’s continued work to unravel the complexities of on-post housing, burial and benefits related to command sponsorship overseas because these DOMA-tinged support structures are integral to military service.
It was a privilege to be able to witness the President of the United States say these words during the State of the Union while being seated with the First Lady:
"We will ensure equal treatment for all service members, and equal benefits for their families – gay and straight."
I feel like I represented ALL military families, gay and straight, because at the end of the day we all want the same thing: To support our spouse who wears the uniform of our nation, and confidence that our nation will extend an equal level of support to all military families.
Tracey Hepner is the wife of Army Brigadier General Tammy Smith and is a member of the Army Reserve senior spouse team. Tracey is a co-founder of the Military Partners and Families Coalition (MPFC) and currently serves as the Operations Director. She is also founder of Rainbow Ribbon and the Rainbow Ribbon Project, organizations dedicated to raising visibility of LGBT military families prior to the repeal of the policy known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT). That involvement led her to testify to the Pentagon’s Comprehensive Working Group on behalf of LGBT military families, informing the study that eventually led to the repeal of DADT. Tracey works for the Department of Homeland Security as a Master Behavior Detection Officer. You can read all of Tracey's SpouseBuzz posts here.