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Adam And Pete: Love In A Time Of War

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WASHINGTON -- Captain Pete Bennett doesn't remember the time he met his future husband. There wasn't much worth remembering.

It was during his freshman year in 2003, sitting at a table with other West Point cadets, when Adam first spoke to him. Though most West Pointers enter the academy from high school like any other college freshmen, the two were former enlisted soldiers, giving them a bit of common ground.

Adam recalls it well. A former Arabic linguist, he asked Pete what his job had been. But instead of calling it a "job," Adam deployed the in-the-know initials MOS, short for Military Occupational Specialty. It's a basic term familiar to soldiers, but new and bewildering to the younger cadets. One of the 18-year-olds in the room asked Adam what it meant. But the move left Pete unimpressed.

"He rolled his eyes," recalled Adam, "and he looked at me and said, 'That's what people who are in the Army say when they don't know how to make conversation.' And he stood up and left."

"All right," Adam remembers thinking, "well, this guy's a dick."

* * * * *

Captain Adam Harmon is now 31 and the intelligence officer for a military police battalion at Fort Riley, Kansas. Pete's picture sits openly on his desk in the headquarters building. And, for the past two weeks, Adam has worn a wedding ring on his left hand.

They were married on Oct. 8, just 19 days after the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." Because of privacy laws, the Department of Defense has no data on how many gay and lesbian servicemembers have married since the Sept. 20 change. But Adam and Pete are surely among the first couples to test the limits of the Army's acceptance under the new policy.

The pair are familiar with uncomfortable moments, mostly in the form of insults shouted from cars when they hold hands in the street. And when they attempted to register at a Macy's in Columbus, Ga., where Pete was on temporary duty at Fort Benning, a clerk politely but adamantly changed their marriage to a "commitment" on the couple's paperwork.

Macy's apologized to Pete and Adam, and Pete doesn't blame the employee, whom he thought was well-meaning. But still, he said, "almost on a daily to weekly basis we're reminded how we're still not quite viewed as equal by a good portion of the United States. And this was just a really good example of that."

Throughout their time in service, they were also unequal by law. But according to Pete, now 27 and a supply officer with the 10th Brigade Support Battalion at Fort Drum, N.Y., the law has always lagged behind the treatment the pair has received from fellow soldiers.

"The military has been great," said Pete. "Which is kind of crazy because usually the military is a microcosm of society, but I definitely think that in this case ... the military is far ahead of where society is right now on this issue."

* * * * *

Their first meeting was one of the few times the pair spoke while at West Point.

"I kind of blew him off, which was probably typical me back then," said Pete, who lived firmly in the closet as a cadet. There was a private, informal support network among West Point's gays, but he stayed far from the group, afraid of any slip or guilt-by-association that could see him kicked out of the academy.

"Everybody assumed I was straight," he said, "and because of that I fit right in. Nobody really said anything to me."

What social life Pete could afford took place in New York City among friends far removed from the Army. His four years passed without incident.

Adam, meanwhile, was drowning. "I was miserable, I was ready to quit the academy," he said. "I really didn't think I could be happy at all, and I just felt like I was selling my soul."

Cadets have until the first day of their junior year, known as Affirmation Day, to make up their minds about the Army. Leave before then, and there's no penalty. As the deadline approached, Adam was convinced he had to quit.

But, before deciding, he tested the waters by coming out to some close friends. If they reacted negatively, he thought, it would confirm that quitting was the smart choice. "But there were no negative reactions," Adam said, "everybody was incredibly supportive, and so that allowed me in my last two years to be as normal as I guess I could under those circumstances."

Adam became active in the network that Pete had avoided, both for his own sanity and to aid the new cadets who arrived each year with little expectation of help.

"I figured if I could develop that for the younger cadets I felt like I would have done something good," he said. "So they'd have the support I really didn't have."

* * * * *

Though living a semi-out life, Adam graduated in 2007 and was commissioned as a military intelligence officer. While in training, he was able to rely on the support of West Point classmates who knew about his sexuality. But with the frequent moves and job changes inherent to military life, that support quickly eroded.

"It's an odd situation, because no matter how open I was at West Point, every time you [move] you're just de facto back in the closet," he said. He was eventually stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, and began preparing for a deployment to Iraq.

At Fort Drum, Pete attempted a relationship but struggled with its tough realities. "It was ridiculously difficult on the relationship," he said, "because we tried living together but, you know, we couldn't go out together."

To avoid rumors, they would sit seats apart at the local movie theater. To truly feel comfortable, they had to travel 90 minutes to Syracuse or make the three-hour trip to visit Canada.

The deception damaged both men's relationships with other soldiers. For Pete, it meant constantly lying to his commander, a supportive officer and good friend.

"Who it affected, unfortunately, was my leadership," he said, "because one of the things that the Army is really pushing is to, you know, get into your soldiers' personal lives and find out about them and ... help them with those sorts of personal issues."

Adam simply soured on the military as a whole.

"I had a lot of bitterness towards the Army, and I couldn't talk about what the bitterness was about, so I channeled that into every other bitch and moan I had," he said.

* * * * *

In March 2011, Pete returned to Fort Drum after a deployment to Afghanistan. Dealing with the effects of a recent breakup, he decided to send Adam a Facebook message.

Though they had kept apart at West Point, both men knew of the other as a fellow member of the school's small gay community. They had remained out of touch as their careers progressed, but despite their unmemorable first encounter, Adam had left an impression.

"Adam had always been kind of in my mind, but just never enough to, you know, push it," Pete said.

"We started just chatting on Facebook very platonically," Adam recalled. "He had just gotten back from Afghanistan and was looking for something to do in his free time, and I was visiting friends in Austin. And I said, you know, you should come down." With no plans and the Memorial Day weekend coming up, Pete booked the flight.

Neither man had seen each other since their West Point graduation four years earlier. It didn't matter.

"Literally as soon as he showed up and I opened the door and he was standing there in person, it was just immediate," Pete said. "I knew that he was somebody I wanted to be with."

"It was love at first sight," he said. "I know that sounds crazy, but it really was."

The relationship progressed quickly, with flights from Kansas to New York once or twice a month. By the end of June 2011 they were engaged. Adam proposed while on leave in the Bahamas, producing rings on the deck of a cruise ship.

* * * * *

Their romance unfolded as DADT was coming to an uncertain end. Though the repeal bill passed Congress in December 2010, it was not until July that President Barack Obama, along with military leaders, certified that the change could finally take effect. But while politicians bickered over what affect repeal might have on the military, neither Pete nor Adam experienced anything but acceptance from their colleagues.

While in Afghanistan in late 2010, Pete told his commander his secret. As with Adam's friends at West Point, he received nothing but support. "She was hurt at first," Pete said, "because she was like 'I'm one of your best friends here, why wouldn't you tell me?' But then they understand."

During the military's mandatory training sessions on DADT repeal, Adam's fellow officers emphasized that only civility and respect would be tolerated. But even that seemed unnecessary to him, given the professionalism he'd routinely experienced. "Soldiers are going to do what you tell them to do," he said.

Since their wedding, both men have had a flood of supportive emails and Facebook messages from former and current co-workers. According to Adam, many were from West Point classmates who were staunchly against any repeal during their time together at the academy, now writing to express their happiness for both the couple and at the policy change in general.

Shortly before the big day, Pete was on a morning run with his executive officer, the battalion's second-in-command, when the subject unexpectedly came up. The older officer asked about the ceremony, and then, "he proceeded to offer me marital advice," said Pete, "like normal, 'this is what's gonna happen in your first year, you're gonna go do this, that, living together.' ... It was just so cool, just what I expected out of a mentor."

Such normalcy is exactly what the two officers sought.

"I'm not getting any kind of special treatment," said Pete. "It's just now, Captain Bennett, he's gay, and with Adam, and it's just totally a non-issue and that's exactly what I wanted."

* * * * *

The wedding took place in Iowa, where the couple applied for a marriage license. It was an easy choice: gay marriage had been legal in the state since April 2009, and neither man was required to appear in person for the paperwork. Pete, Adam and their guests flew into Madison, Wis., on Friday night. The next morning they drove two hours south to Dubuque.

There, at a bed-and-breakfast, friends quickly decorated the foyer with flowers bought at the Madison farmer's market. Adam and Pete changed into their formal dress blues.

A dozen people, mostly family members, gathered around to watch. The men took their places side-by-side next to the staircase, in the light of a stained-glass window. Then, with Pete's father officiating, the two traded vows, tearing up as they recited self-written promises off of their smartphones. Adam's mother, Rita, blessed the couple, the official documents received their signatures, and the ceremony was done.

The group headed outside to the balcony, champagne flutes in hand. Standing in the sunlight, posing for photos with Adam's arm around his waist, Pete's thoughts were simple: "I felt like a king."

* * * * *

Despite the support of their colleagues, both Pete and Adam will leave active duty next year. One of the largest reasons is the Defense of Marriage Act.

With DADT repealed, DOMA is the next major hurdle for gay servicemembers to surmount. Because the federal government will not recognize same-sex marriages, couples like Adam and Pete are ineligible for the spousal benefits that heterosexual couples receive.

"We really realized this when we [were] trying to file for our life insurance policies and next of kin notifying each other and medical benefits and stuff like that, you know, in deployments especially," Pete said.

DOMA challenges are already in motion. In Connecticut, a lesbian Navy veteran has already filed a lawsuit to claim disability benefits for herself and her wife, and the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network filed a DOMA challenge in federal court on Thursday morning. The Senate Judiciary Committee will also take up debate on a bill overturning DOMA on Nov. 3rd.

Joint housing is another critical issue. Adam and Pete are stationed 1,300 miles apart, but because their marriage isn't recognized by the federal government, they cannot request to be assigned to the same location as a heterosexual couple can.

The problem was a major factor in Adam's decision to leave the Army. Shortly before repeal, he declined a job that would have extended his time in service. Another deployment came with the assignment, but it was the fear of three more years of forced separation from his husband that made up Adam's mind.

Like many soldiers who leave the Army, however, he is still conflicted about the decision. Adam's pent-up bitterness disappeared along with DADT, replaced with a renewed pride and enjoyment in his service. Both he and Pete say they'll miss the Army, but that DOMA forces them to choose between a secure family life in the civilian world or an uneasy future in uniform.

"I'm sure policy will change," Pete said, "but we just realized that it wasn't going to happen quickly enough, and in the case that me or Adam were to get deployed in the future, we just were scared that, you know, we didn't know what our rights were going to be."

* * * * *

The Monday after the wedding, Pete left Madison for Fort Drum. It had been a life-changing weekend, perfectly realized. It was, "more than I ever dreamt of. You know, I never thought that this could ever be possible," he said.

But the next morning, the reception at his unit was the normal routine. Co-workers shook Pete's hand at the office and wished him well at the gym. Otherwise, the day was unremarkable.

At Fort Riley, Adam's experience was no different. "The only surprising thing about the reaction was that there really was no reaction," he said. "Some people I didn't realize knew, just because it's on Facebook and everything, you know, just shook my hand and said, 'Congratulations, I'm happy for you.'"

It was a reception exactly like any other, and a moment both men had waited years to see.

"For the first time in the 11 years I've been uniform, I know what the Army is like for everyone else," said Adam. "And it really is awesome."

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