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Shawn DeBarge Goodin Headshot

Dear Michelle: An Open Letter to the First Lady About Same-Sex Military Families

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Dear First Lady,

Earlier in my career, I thought for sure that I would remain ultimately alone in my personal life, so long as I chose to serve my country. I met Brandon shortly after I arrived at my first duty station. He was and will always be the polar opposite of me, but the first evening that we met, he totally had me entranced. I've never admitted this before, but I believe that he felt the same way but succeeded at keeping me at bay in acknowledgement of my deployment to Iraq just a few short weeks away. I understood this and embarked on my first adventure in the East with the support of my friends and family.

However, in the back of my head, I think that I had determined to try my luck with Brandon when I redeployed. Not two days after I had returned, he insisted that we give dating a try; and ever since then, he has been stuck with me. That was nearly three years and one deployment ago. Early in our relationship, although I loved him, I thought that he was somewhat crazy to my benefit. I understood how difficult my generational peers must find sacrificing their own career advancement to voluntarily enlist themselves into the Army's Spouse Corps in support of their soldiers. More so, I understood how less likely a gay male might sign on in the time of DADT, when America ignored the possibility of its occurrence. Brandon has exposed the fallacious nature of this notion in his dedication to me and support of my military endeavors.

With the ongoing operational tempo, Brandon and I knew that it was only a matter of time until I deployed again. We discussed our future and he assured me that he would be fine in the event that I did receive orders. His free-bird personality was in full display. Surprisingly, those wings were eventually weighed down by short notice of my pending deployment to Afghanistan. I believe he began to experience the same concerns of any spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend as their soldier begins mobilization. Even still, he assured me that he would be there to support me along the way. I remember him dropping me off at my unit on that dark June morning. I remember how quiet we both were. The pending distance and time away left us nearly speechless.

During that deployment, Brandon became my solace away from the chaos in Afghanistan. On a tough day, he could sense the irritation in my voice and would inquire into my well-being. On even rougher days, he succeeded in getting me to laugh. During those twelve months, I was better able to focus on my mission because Brandon gave me something to look forward to. And when I returned home, he stood among the other spouses, boyfriends, and girlfriends in that crowded gym to welcome me home.

Yet, despite his unwavering love and support, our relationship is cloaked in the shadows without any promises of legitimacy in so far as our federal government is concerned. Although Brandon and I live in Washington State, which now has marriage equality, if we were to marry the certificate would carry no value when presented at my post. Simply because of our sexual orientation, my marriage would go unrecognized. In effect, DOD would deem our marriage as illegitimate, denying us a number of marital benefits promised to servicemembers. In a number of circumstances, the refusal to administer benefits creates economic inequality and inadequately compensates for economic hardships due to service. Among these are health care for dependents. If Brandon ever required significant medical care, we would not have the benefit of Tricare. Although I am fortunate to have medical coverage, the burden of such an occurrence chips away at the resolve afforded by that benefit. Even simpler benefits are to be desired. Due to limited base access, Brandon is most likely never to surprise me with lunch. Nor can he come to unit functions unescorted, such as the day that I take command of my company, a primary milestone in any junior officer's career.

I still fail to understand on what legitimate grounds gay, married servicemembers should be denied those benefits offered automatically to spouses of our straight counterparts without question upon verification of a marriage certificate. In contrast, DOD denies these rights to gay servicemembers in accordance with the DOMA. Ironically, DOD does not assume the deference afforded to the military in the era of DADT to advocate for the recognition of all military families post-DADT. Without question, DOD recognizes the importance of families to individual soldiers and its institutions as a whole. However, this recognition does not allow for the extension of benefits to all families; specifically those that result from a same-sex marriage. The circumstances suggest a modern reincarnation of sanctioned "separate but equal."

I greatly admire your efforts on behalf of military families. As a soldier, I find it encouraging knowing that we have such a vocal advocate bridging the gap between military families and the general public. However, despite the significant success of programs such as Joining Forces, I wonder if the mission we share can ever be complete if basic benefits remain elusive to same-sex military families. Your comments to last year's graduates at my alma mater show that you truly understand our stories and hardships. You understand that "abiding love, that passionate devotion to family" that has "sustained so many on battlefields... around the world since the very beginning of this nation." You also understand the "sincere satisfaction" soldiers experience of knowing that your loved ones are safe and taken care of. I do not believe that you have ever found the need to distinguish between married soldiers, gay or straight. I can assure you that these considerations came to mind many times during my last deployment. I hope that your advocacy on behalf of military families will carry this message in recognition of all those who serve. I thank you for your continued support and pray for the success of your advocacy on behalf of all servicemembers and their families.

Very Respectfully,

Shawn DeBarge Goodin

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense or the United States government.

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