Marriage Equality Enables Military Families To Share Their Stories

Family & Relationships
Sandra Johnson, left, and Staff Sgt. Tracy Johnson, right, comfort each other during the StoryCorps 2nd Annual Gala, Oct. 9th, 2014.
Photo by Boyan Penkov

The Supreme Court ruling on the rights of same-sex couples to marry has strengthened the rights of gay service members to openly own their stories. During this era of sweeping social change for the military — which is also expanding women’s roles in combat arms professions — storytelling programs connect Americans with service members whose lives have rarely been explored. StoryCorps, a nonprofit, has since 2003 recorded, preserved, and shared more than 2,500 oral histories in its Military Voices Initiative, including those of gays and dual-military couples.

Staff Sgt. Donna Johnson, the wife of Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Tracy Johnson, was killed by a suicide bomber in Khost, Afghanistan, in 2012. The event marked the first combat loss of a gay spouse after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed. Although the Johnsons were legally married, the Defense of Marriage Act did not allow the military to recognize Tracy as next of kin. It was up to Donna’s mother, Sandra Johnson, to insist that her daughter-in-law be allowed to escort Donna’s body home.

Of her experiences with discrimination after her wife’s death, Tracy Johnson told me, “I accepted my fate, but that didn’t mean I had to let it happen to other people.” The Johnsons’ story was widely profiled in the press as a beacon for equal rights for gay couples. After the Defense of Marriage Act was ruled unconstitutional, the Department of Defense offered full benefits to married same-sex spouses in 2013, and Johnson was retroactively awarded death benefits. Today, her tattoos honor her relationship with her fallen wife.

Warriors’ deep desire to pay tribute to their fallen comrades can be an equalizer. In another StoryCorps piece, Tech. Sgt. MaCherie Dunbar of the Alaska Air National Guard describes volunteering for “patriot duty” to her girlfriend, medic Barb Maglaqui. Even if she had just come off a 14-hour shift in Iraq, Dunbar would volunteer to stand at attention as transport cases containing soldiers’ remains were loaded onto a C-130 for their final journey home.

As women increase participation in service, these losses are more frequently borne by dual-military couples. In 2012, 11.3% of married service members were married to other service members. Retired Sgt. 1st Class Max Voelz speaks of the frequent marginalization of military widowers. Both he and his wife Kimberly were Army explosive ordnance disposal technicians. In his StoryCorps interview, Voelz says, “When I receive a condolence letter from a high-ranking government official that says, ‘Mrs. Voelz, we’re sorry for the loss of your husband,’ it just makes it seem like nobody knows we exist.”

Suffering from severe depression after the loss of his wife, Voelz met Sgt. Mary Dague, another Army EOD soldier who lost both arms in Iraq. A relentlessly positive dynamo, Dague now counsels other wounded veterans on grieving their old lives and rebuilding new ones. As a result, Voelz began to heal his emotional wounds. His gutting story of simultaneous grief and isolation resonates with male warriors who feel pressured into silence by cultural expectations of stoicism.

And as marriage equality expands, more same-sex military marriages could occur near bases in states that previously outlawed them. For example, Fort Benning, Georgia has over 30,000 active and reserve soldiers, according to its welcome packet. Now, gay soldiers there won’t have to travel to other jurisdictions — which costs the military valuable paid leave days — in order to marry. There are over 200,000 service members in Georgia, Texas, Mississippi, Missouri, and North Dakota, according to a tally; all of them will also now be afforded these same rights.

By ensuring maximum opportunity for military couples to marry, the Supreme Court’s recent decision helps equalize treatment of the living, the fallen, and their survivors. This gives service members — gay and straight — agency in owning their stories.

When I spoke with Sylvie Lubow, program manager of StoryCorps’ Military Voices Initiative, she quoted a participant who said, “It’s not about what happened to me; it’s about what I did.”

By highlighting our common humanity, these oral histories can be empowering for minorities who see their own experiences reflected. Despite the diversity of their relationships, these couples’ stories resonate with universal themes: love, loss, and a deep desire to connect to an evolving American society, in which, now, all have the right to marry.

(U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. Andrew Smith)

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Marine Maj. Jose J. Anzaldua Jr. spent more than three years during the height of the Vietnam War. Now, more than 45 years after his release, Sig Sauer is paying tribute to his service with a special gift.

Sig Sauer on Friday unveiled a unique 1911 pistol engraved with Anzaldua's name, the details of his imprisonment in Vietnam, and the phrase "You Are Not Forgotten" accompanied by the POW-MIA flag on the grip to commemorate POW-MIA Recognition Day.

The gunmaker also released a short documentary entitled "Once A Marine, Always A Marine" — a fitting title given Anzaldua's courageous actions in the line of duty

Marine Maj. Jose Anzaldua's commemorative 1911 pistol

(Sig Sauer)

Born in Texas in 1950, Anzaldua enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1968 and deployed to Vietnam as an intelligence scout assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.

On Jan. 23, 1970, he was captured during a foot patrol and spent 1,160 days in captivity in various locations across North Vietnam — including he infamous Hỏa Lò Prison known among American POWs as the "Hanoi Hilton" — before he was freed during Operation Homecoming on March 27, 1973.

Anzaldua may have been a prisoner, but he never stopped fighting. After his release, he received two Bronze Stars with combat "V" valor devices and a Prisoner of War Medal for displaying "extraordinary leadership and devotion to his companions" during his time in captivity. From one of his Bronze Star citations:

Using his knowledge of the Vietnamese language, he was diligent, resourceful, and invaluable as a collector of intelligence information for the senior officer interned in the prison camp.

In addition, while performing as interpreter for other United States prisoners making known their needs to their captors, [Anzaldua] regularly, at the grave risk of sever retaliation to himself, delivered and received messages for the senior officer.

On one occasion, when detected, he refused to implicate any of his fellow prisoners, even though severe punitive action was expected.

Anzaldua also received a Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his heroism in December 1969, when he entered the flaming wreckage of a U.S. helicopter that crashed nearr his battalion command post in the country's Quang Nam Province and rescued the crew chief and a Vietnamese civilian "although painfully burned himself," according to his citation.

After a brief stay at Camp Pendleton following his 1973 release, Anzaldua attended Officer Candidate School at MCB Quantico, Virginia, earning his commission in 1974. He retired from the Corps in 1992 after 24 years of service.

Sig Sauer presented the commemorative 1911 pistol to Anzaldua in a private ceremony at the gunmaker's headquarters in Newington, New Hampshire. The pistol's unique features include:

  • 1911 Pistol: the 1911 pistol was carried by U.S. forces throughout the Vietnam War, and by Major Anzaldua throughout his service. The commemorative 1911 POW pistol features a high-polish DLC finish on both the frame and slide, and is chambered in.45 AUTO with an SAO trigger. All pistol engravings are done in 24k gold;
  • Right Slide Engraving: the Prisoner of War ribbon inset, with USMC Eagle Globe and Anchor and "Major Jose Anzaldua" engravings;
  • Top Slide Engraving: engraved oak leaf insignia representing the Major's rank at the time of retirement and a pair of dog tags inscribed with the date, latitude and longitude of the location where Major Anzaldua was taken as a prisoner, and the phrase "You Are Not Forgotten" taken from the POW-MIA flag;
  • Left Side Engraving: the Vietnam War service ribbon inset, with USMC Eagle Globe and Anchor engraving;
  • Pistol Grips: anodized aluminum grips with POW-MIA flag.

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