Service to Country, Service to Family
By Capt. Matthew Phelps, USMC
As members of the military know, a single year will often be packed with changes that most civilians can’t begin to imagine. Deployments, transfers, duty assignments, and even colleagues change for us with a regularity that would make the average person’s head spin. We are conditioned to accept change as a constant, and although we can become accustomed to it, our families often bear the burden of keeping the pace.For me, in a period of twelve months, I will have transferred from San Diego, Ca., to Quantico, Va., and again to Okinawa, Japan. I will have attended training in California, Georgia, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C. It’s been a year like many others in my military career, and I’m sure many thousands of military members can recall similar periods.
What made this year different, though, is that it wasn’t just about doing what was right for me anymore. In May 2013, I will marry my partner, Ben. I never imagined that I would find myself in the position to ask someone to move halfway around the world to be with me, but when I received my orders that’s exactly what I did, and he said yes. And as special as Ben is to me, and as wonderful as our lives are together, there is nothing special about our story. Service members go through changes like these all the time, and our families adjust.
The military does its best to make these life-changing transitions easier to bear. Families receive a separation allowance when duty requires the service members to travel without their families. When families are authorized to move with service members, the military pays for travel and moving expenses. Bases often provide job placement services for dislocated spouses. Service members’ housing allowances are adjusted for the cost of supporting their families at new duty stations. Family members receive free healthcare.
When service members are transferred outside the continental United States, even more assistance is provided. Spouses are covered under the same “Status of Forces Agreement” that gives legal protections to service members when they are stationed in foreign countries. The government sponsors spouses and family members to obtain visas as needed for work or school. The government’s goal is to take care of families so that service members aren’t so distracted by family matters as to prevent them from performing their duties at their best.
For families like mine, though, none of these services or benefits are provided. In fact, despite Defense Secretary Hagel’s desire to treat all military spouses and families equally, the military is specifically prohibited from doing so under the Defense of Marriage Act.
Ours is not the only—or even the first—LGBT family to face the challenges that an overseas assignment will bring. We have, however, chosen to let our story serve as a public example of the inequality LGBT families face in the military. Many people see the photos of my engagement to Ben at the White House or see the videos we’ve made and refer to us as activists. We don’t think of ourselves that way. Like most couples, we’re just two people working to build a better life for each other and those around us. We do, however, consider it our duty to be advocates.
As military members, we are expected to make decisions that will support and benefit others, even if doing so comes at great cost. As members of the LGBT community fighting for equality, it’s no different. But while activists have the liberty of aggressively speaking out, regardless of the consequences, as advocates we must carefully weigh the demands of our many obligations—to our country, to our families, and to the service members who will come after us. Sometimes silence is the best—or even the only—decision. Other times, however, it’s not.
The case of my permanent change of station to Okinawa, Japan, is such a case. We must be willing to stand up for what is right when not doing so would hurt our families and our ability to provide for them. By publicly acknowledging our challenges and working to fix them—both from within the military and with organizations like OutServe-SLDN, we will be better able to serve our military and our families. Our nation expects this of us, and deserves nothing less than our best effort.
Our families will continue to be transferred, deployed, and challenged by change that is constant in our service. We must step up, speak out, and do whatever we can for equality. We will never eliminate the hardships we and our families face, but we can—and must—continue to work towards a goal of taking care of our families, so we may serve our country with the focus and dedication that the nation requires of us.
As a Marine, it is my duty to execute lawful orders. As a husband, it is my duty to honor and provide for my family. As an advocate for equality, it is my duty to weigh these two demands and, ultimately, prevent others from having to face the same challenges later.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Armed Forces.