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 The event marked the first combat loss of a gay spouse after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed.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. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Sandra Welch

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