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Congratulations
 
Happy Memorial Day 2014
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 05/24/14
Last updated on: 05/25/14
 
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Sgts. Donna Johnson and Tracy Dice Johnson

As we celebrate Memorial Day 2014, we need to remember the sacrifices made by those who have served in our military, including glbtq servicemembers, both those who served in silence and those who are now able to serve openly. We need especially to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. This year, we can also acknowledge the greater level of justice now enjoyed by American gay and lesbian servicemembers.

Following the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, American gay and lesbian servicemembers have served openly and without incident. Gay and lesbian clubs have formed at the military academies and gay and lesbian couples have attended formal balls at the U.S. Naval Academy and other schools, with the acceptance of their colleagues.

The new level of comfort felt by gay and lesbian servicemembers on active duty is also apparent in the numerous photographs and videos of same-sex partners greeting each other with kisses and hugs upon returning from deployment.

Since the Supreme Court's ruling in Windsor v. U.S. in June 2013, which invalidated the Defense of Marriage Act, the Obama administration has moved aggressively to make certain that servicemembers in same-sex marriages are accorded the same benefits as their heterosexual colleagues even if they serve in states that do not recognize their marriages.

As we celebrate this new openness and acceptance, we must not forget those who suffered under the old policies--including the 14,000 servicemembers discharged under DADT--and those who fought so tenaciously to change them.

More specifically, we need to remember heroes like Sgt. Leonard Matlovich, Sgt. Perry Watkins, Sgt. Miriam Ben-Shalom, and Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer, who were pioneers in fighting against discrimination in the military.

Heroes in the fight to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell also need to be honored. These include Aubrey Sarvis of the Service Members Legal Defense Network, Alexander Nicholson of Servicemembers United, and Nathaniel Frank and Aaron Belkin of the Palm Center, as well as Lt. Dan Choi, Capt. Jim Pietrangelo, Capt. Tanya Domi, Cpl. Evelyn Thomas, Maj. Michael Almy, Lt. Robert Chaurasiya, Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach, Sgt. Justin Elzie, and Spc. Jarrod Chlapowski, and Pty. Off. Autumn Sandeen, among many, many others.

On Memorial Day, those who have given their lives defending our country should be especially remembered.

One of them is Sgt. Donna R. Johnson, who was killed on October 1, 2012 when a Taliban suicide bomber rammed a motorcycle packed with explosives into a joint U.S.-Afghan patrol in Afghanistan. She and two other members of the North Carolina National Guard were among 14 killed in the attack.

Compounding the tragedy of Sgt. Johnson's death was the fact that, thanks to the Defense of Marriage Act, her wife, Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Tracy Dice Johnson, was denied survivor's benefits that she would have received had she been a man.

Happily, however, Dice Johnson has recently received word from the Department of Veterans Affairs that she will receive the same full benefits that heterosexual widows and widowers receive.

As Karen Jowers reports in Army Times, the benefits will be retroactive, dating back to her wife's death in October 2012.

The Veterans Affairs decision came after "a long, drawn-out process, but at the end of the day, hearts and minds prevailed."

Johnson and Dice married on February 14, 2012. Johnson deployed to Afghanistan in August 2012.

Dice Johnson announced the VA's decision on May 17, 2014 at the inaugural National Gala Dinner of the American Military Partner Association, where she received the organization's 2014 Community Hero Award. Johnson thanked the association for the support she has received, as well as her parents, her mother-in-law Sandra Johnson, "and the love of my life, Donna, who I know is here with us."

Another gay soldier who made the ultimate sacrifice is Cpl. Andrew Wilfahrt of Rosemont, Minnesota, who was killed in Afghanistan in February 27, 2011.

The openly gay Wilfahrt joined the Army in 2009, when DADT was still in effect. His decision to join the military surprised his parents. They wondered why Andrew would enter the military, where he'd be forced to deny a part of who he is and where he would be in danger. Nevertheless, the parents supported his decision, just as they had supported him when he came out at age 16.

When they learned that their son had been killed, Jeff Wilfahrt, Andrew's father, at first feared that he might have been fragged because he was gay. "I want to talk directly to somebody in his platoon!" Jeff told the officer and chaplain who delivered the tragic news.

What he discovered was that Andrew was accepted and valued by his colleagues. He was so well-liked his comrades named a combat outpost for him. COP Wilfahrt sits 6 kilometers from Kandahar. To his buddies, it is not named for a gay soldier, but for one who fought with valor.

"Mom, everyone knows. Nobody cares," he told his mother in their final conversation.

Since Andrew Wilfahrt's death, his parents have embraced the cause of gay rights. As Jeff Wilfahrt has said, "If my son was good enough to fight and die for the constitution, the least I can do is continue the fight here."

In the video below, from June 2013, Staff Sgt. Tracy Dice Johnson speaks of the loss of her wife Sgt. Donna Johnson.

 
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