One Couple in the Fight for Life
By David Small
Charlie Morgan’s voice has been muted by cancer. It has spread and is putting pressure on her vocal cords. But while she speaks with a soft whisper now, her voice has never been louder. Her fight to ensure her small and loving family is taken care of in the event the cancer overcomes her life is being heard loudly. From the local papers in New Hampshire to the halls of Congress, Charlie and Karen Morgan are the national faces of resistance to the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
Charlie, now a chief warrant officer in the New Hampshire National Guard, met her wife to-be, Karen, in 1997 while working for the local newspaper in Lexington, Ky. They were introduced through a mutual friend on casual terms. Their first date was to a Lilith Fair concert—a fitting beginning to their 15-year relationship where their family enjoys activities based on musical events, especially at wineries.
As soon as Vermont made civil unions available in 2000, the two tied the knot there. “We thought civil unions were equal to marriage until last year,” relayed Karen, who spoke for both her and Charlie through the interview, given Charlie’s difficulty speaking. The two officially wed only recently in a small ceremony among family and friends in New Hampshire on the same day their civil union was dissolved. They wanted no gap in time for their relationship. “It was very important to us emotionally.”
The two changed their name to Morgan during their original commitment. They had talked about hyphenating their name, but decided a new name was symbolic of starting a new life together. They chose Morgan because of its water element symbolism and the water’s references to strength and commitment. In the dawn of their biggest fight later in life, they have found that water has provided them solace and comfort.
Charlie is the first woman Karen had ever been with and she came out to her family after the two made a commitment to each other. “At that point, I realized I’d tell the people important in my life. I was going to be who I am, and I’m very happy with who I am,” said Karen.
Charlie, on the other hand, came out much earlier in life. She had been on active duty as a motor pool clerk and returned from her post in Germany to Fort Hood, Texas in 1984, at only 19 years old. Before signing in, she visited her mother and brought a friend with her. She wanted to talk to her mom about her friend, but her mom replied before Charlie could say anything, “If you’re going to tell me you’re gay, then I already know that.” Charlie was speechless and maintains a good relationship with her family today.
The two met while Charlie was a civilian, having separated from the Army in 1992, but she hadn’t been a civilian for long. “I remember when we met, she still did things like she was in the military, folding her clothes and organizing her drawers,” said Karen.
MAKING OF A FAMILY
During the winter, the two live in a quaint, ranch-style home overlooking the sea coast in Rye, N.H., just outside of Portsmouth. From their kitchen table, they enjoy the calming view of the sea. On warmer nights, the two enjoy a glass of wine on their deck where they listen to the bell buoys ring in the ocean. In the summer, when their daughter Casey Elena, 5, is out of school, they stay with Karen’s elderly parents in the lakes region, making their winter rental near the beach affordable. Water is indeed an important element in their family.
It was Casey Elena, though, that brought the family north from Kentucky, where the three had built a home. There, Charlie had been a business teacher in a rural community, and Karen worked in equine management and at the newspaper. Before Casey Elena was born, the two had been foster parents.
“Being foster parents was something we felt strongly we needed to do to give back to the community,” they said. “We knew we wanted to be parents and it absolutely changed our lives in a positive way.”
But working didn’t suit the parental lifestyle Karen had fallen into, so she became a full-time mom, while Charlie became the family’s full-time breadwinner. Charlie re-entered the Army as a National Guard soldier in 2004, while still teaching high school business.
“I love my family. I love Charlie. And I love my country,” said Karen. “I’m so proud of Charlie’s service.”
Wanting to move to a place where they could find more acceptance of their family and be closer to grandparents and cousins, they headed to New Hampshire. Casey Elena attends a small Montessori school with a diverse curriculum, and they now live in a more supportive community.
“She has the best possible place to grow up,” the couple said. “As a family, we love to do outdoorsy things like hiking, biking and going to the beach. Our daughter loves to bowl, and within a few years, she is going to be better than either of us. We do things that draw us together as a family.”
Karen takes Casey Elana to the beach almost every day, while Charlie’s unit has accommodated her health issues by allowing her to telecommute from home. There, she is able to manage the state Guard’s education services. On days she isn’t up to it, she curls up on the couch under a blanket that Casey Elena brings her “mama” and watches the sea from their large picture window as Casey Elena frolics in the sand. Charlie is mama while Karen is mommy.
“She’s a really creative child,” they said. “She’s very into painting, drawing and projects. She also does gymnastics, dance, and she loved her preschool soccer camp last summer. We want her to grow up honest and proud. After ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ (DADT), we could teach her those lessons.”
A TRIP TO REMEMBER
The family also loves to travel when they can, learning about new people and cultures. In fulfilling something on the family’s bucket list, OutServe raised money for them to go to Hawaii over Valentine’s Day 2012, as they didn’t have the financial resources for such a trip. People donated airline miles, paid for their hotels, gave them tickets for activities, and lent them a Jeep.
“This is the way the military takes care of its own,” they said. “OutServe took care of us the way the rest of the military does for others. We want to say thank you to everybody, especially Jeffry Priela-Tam, one of the OutServe Hawaii chapter leaders, and Sue Fulton, who facilitated so much of the trip. It was life-changing and created a whole new book of family memories for us.”
LIVING UNDER DADT
To the casual observer, there is nothing different about their family than any other. But they have had their trials and tribulations, especially living under DADT.
It was an isolating time for Karen because she didn’t have the ability to freely converse about her experiences as a military wife to other military spouses. This emotion really came to a head when Charlie was given less than 24-hours notice to deploy for three weeks to the gulf coast in response to Hurricane Katrina. There, she supported a unit that hauled food and water to people in need. Charlie, the ever-organized professional, quickly made her business class lesson plans available to a substitute in a scramble.
But from Karen’s perspective, it was scary. “What if something happens while she’s away? Will they know to contact me? The answer was no,” she said.
Hurricane Katrina happened only a year after the couple deliberated what it meant for Charlie to re-enter service after a 12-year break. At the time, the couple was living openly.
“We were true to ourselves. Everybody in our life knew about our relationship and our family,” they said. “What that meant, essentially, was that for the first time, we couldn’t be a part of each other’s life.”
The two endured another deployment as Charlie left for a year in September, 2010. She had just been given a clean bill of health from her first bout of cancer and the brigade needed an equal opportunity officer in Kuwait. It was an interesting deployment as she got an inside view of the demise of DADT, given her official duties.
With eight months’ notice, the two also had more in place for this deployment, especially communication. At Casey Elena’s stage of development, it was important for the couple to ensure the bond remained strong between momma and daughter. At the same time, communication for Karen and Charlie was difficult because they were on constant guard, even afraid to sign cards “with love.”
To other couples facing deployment, the two advise, “Plan your communications as much as you can in advance and make that commitment to each other. It’s really important to take that time. You’re living two different lives, apart. As a married couple, our priority was the few minutes we had to talk.”
They also said it is important for each person in the relationship to have a source of support. For Charlie, it was her first-line supervisor and her roommate, 1LT Jenifer Donovan. Lieutenant Donovan’s experience as a conservative person against same-sex marriage changed upon meeting Charlie. Her story is told in a sidebar to this article.
For Karen, she applauds the end of DADT as spouses at home will be able to access family readiness groups as a source of support in the future.
Charlie redeployed during DADT’s 60-day certification period in August 2011. The family celebrated in Boston like it was New Years’ Eve. The eve of the Repeal, Charlie was approached by OutServe to be on MSNBC, where she came out nationally on Sept 20, 2011.
“I felt really proud to do that,” said Charlie. “It was the first time I could, in a professional capacity, say that I was a lesbian in the military and that I loved my family and my country.”
The two kept Casey Elena home from school that day, as it was a family celebration. “She understands in some capacity that it was a very special day,” they said.
The couple’s first experience as LGBT advocates occurred when Charlie requested an exception to policy to allow Karen to attend the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program from New Hampshire’s Adjutant General, Air Force Maj Gen William N. Reddel. The Yellow Ribbon Program exists for all services’ guardsmen and reservists who return home to civilian life after deployment and must reintegrate into their former lives. Whereas active duty soldiers have such resources on their bases and from their units, citizen soldiers often spread with the four winds upon returning and don’t have easy access to such programs and resources.
General Reddel, acting on inaccurate information from his lawyers, returned a letter to the Morgans denying the exception to policy and barring Karen from attending the program, citing DOMA.
“It was heartbreaking,” they said. “The purpose of Yellow Ribbon is to support families. We wanted to go as a married couple and attend a specific session called ‘Strengthening Marriage.’”
Note that this denial occurred after DADT repeal certification but before Sept. 20’s repeal. New Hampshire Sen. Jean Shaheen got wind of the situation and intervened on the couple’s behalf, allowing Karen to attend.
“I was so nervous about going after the hoopla,” said Karen. “It became a big deal. I wondered if it would be hostile or friendly. But the brigade commander and deputy adjutant general welcomed us and were very supportive and cordial. On the way out, the general told us, ‘Please don’t stop here. Continue to fight what you’re fighting for.’”
Ironically, the contractor hired to teach the Strengthening Marriage session was a lesbian, using her own experiences with her partner as examples during the class.
Returning from the desert, it was nice for Charlie to return to her seaside home. “It’s uplifting and spiritual to live near the ocean,” they said.
CANCER STRIKES AGAIN
But after her return, Charlie’s cancer came back. She has a reoccurrence of stage IV breast cancer, which has spread to her lymph nodes. It is metastatic. It is incurable. Today, the last session of chemotherapy is working its way out of her body and she is feeling a little better. But doctors say this last treatment wasn’t effective. By the time of this publication, the couple will have travelled to Boston for a second opinion, but Charlie has already decided she doesn’t want to go through chemo again.
“It completely takes you down. It’s exhausting. I don’t feel like myself,” she said. “I’m willing to listen to what they have to say. And we’ve talked about our needs, physically and spiritually.”
A typical appointment now is an all-day affair. By the time they get home, they are whipped, but their family, community, Unitarian Universalist church, and Casey Elena’s school have rallied in support. Together, they provide logistical help like preparing meals and watching their daughter. Charlie’s unit and her family readiness group have also helped.
“People have reached out with those really practical needs, but also on an emotional level,” they said. “The commitment we’ve made to each other is really strong and that carries us through.”
ADVOCATES FOR CHANGE
But despite the love, strength and support that exists for the Morgans, their biggest worry is that they could lose Charlie without resolution to the question of future support for her family, which Charlie has clearly earned through her service to the country.
Despite being legally married (and being the epitome of a loving, stable family in every way), Karen, who is a full-time, stay-at-home mom today, will not have the luxury of health insurance, Veterans Administration benefits, access to base, or social security that a straight couple in their situation would have if Charlie dies. Next year, Karen plans to begin teaching special education, having earned another degree to become the new breadwinner for the family.
Together, these benefits, known as “survivor benefits,” are the same things Charlie’s mother used to sustain her family when growing up after losing Charlie’s military father. Survivor benefits are a monthly allotment meant to help care for family in cases where a military spouse passes away during service or in retirement.
These benefits do not exist for gay and lesbian military families because DOMA prevents the Department of Defense from officially recognizing such relationships, effectively creating a two-tier system of benefits that divides gay and straight families.
Charlie took her story to Congress to advocate repeal of DOMA. When she met with her district’s congressman, Rep. Frank Guinta (R-NH), he wasn’t aware that gay couples were denied federal benefits. He had thought that because his state recognized same-sex marriage, military and federal employee spouses were entitled to the same benefits to which a straight couple in New Hampshire had access. But that’s not the case, and Charlie relayed to him her frustration with DOMA.
She then took her message directly to Speaker of the House John Boehner.
“I would like the Speaker to know, as a member of the Active Guard, that I laid my life on the line for my country,” said Charlie. “Now I need my country to protect and take care of my family. My wife and daughter face an uncertain future, unable to receive the same family support and services as our counterparts who render the same service, take the same risks, and make the same sacrifices. Time is of the essence.”
After a public status-check to Speaker Boehner’s office by the Huffington Post regarding Charlie’s request for an audience with him, she was able to personally deliver her message to his chief policy advisor, but not directly to the Speaker himself. The meeting went well, and she left behind a pamphlet for the Speaker with photos and information about her and her family.
Charlie’s former business students, with whom she left a positive, lasting impression, joined in the Morgans’ advocacy efforts, writing to Speaker Boehner’s office.
Because of Charlie’s cancer, the Morgans are one of the better-known co-plaintiffs among eight other couples in McLaughlin v. Panetta, a lawsuit filed on behalf of gay troops and veterans by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, pending before the District Court of Massachusetts.
Despite the Obama Administration’s refusal to defend DOMA in court, Republican leaders have spent more than $750,000 defending the law, and the Congressional Budget Office estimates that figure to soar to $1.5 million by the end of 2012.
Despite the ongoing litigation, their lawyers have advised that there are things the military can do to ease the burden, but they couldn’t comment further, given the ongoing legal proceedings.
Before entering this fight so publicly, the Morgans discussed it. “This was a family endeavor, and we support each other in it,” they said. “It needs to be done. It is an important issue in our life, but it reaches so far beyond our lives. There are other families out there who can’t speak openly because of where they live, their rank or other factors. We can speak, so we should.”
Time really is of the essence for the couple, given Charlie’s declining condition.
“We are optimistic that we’ll have a positive outcome, but the truth is we don’t know for sure,” they said. “We want to stay optimistic, enjoy life, and not take any moment for granted.”
To help pass the time, Karen and Charlie have worked on a memoir of their life and experiences, titled, “Personal Courage,” for which they are currently seeking a publishing agent.
For more on Charlie Morgan’s story, including photos, letters from friends, and a moving story about her trip to Hawaii, view the May/June issue of OutServe Magazine here.