Gay, married and deployed: Ijpe and Thom’s story
By Sgt 1st class Ijpe DeKoe
Thom and I met in 1998 while working at the same Boy Scout camp. We briefly dated and then enjoyed a decade of close friendship, the defining characteristic of which was distance. In March 2011, while on vacation in New Orleans, we realized that our relationship went far deeper than any other connection we had experienced separately. We began dating and made plans for him to move to my duty station in Memphis, Tenn. Though we both realized the risks associated with living together off-post, and the restrictions that existed under “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” (DADT), we were in love and willing to take that chance.
In June, I agreed to join a different unit to fill a critical personnel shortage. In the weeks that followed, I reported to Fort Dix, N.J., and Thom and I adjusted all of our plans. We both focused on tackling the many challenges that came with preparing for a deployment. The unintended effect of a pending year-long separation actually caused us to focus more deeply on each other, and I began to realize that there was no other person with whom I wanted to spend my life.
I married my best friend Aug. 4, 2011, in East Hampton, N.Y., just a couple of weeks after the New York Marriage Equality Act took effect. A few days later, I returned to pre-mobilization training at Fort Dix. On Aug. 18, I began my tour in Afghanistan as a civil affairs Soldier attached to the 489th Civil Affairs Battalion.
For me, this deployment was a continuation of 11 years in the Army. I had a prior deployment to Iraq and was used to spending many nights away from home. For Thom, it was the beginning of a one-year countdown. It meant listening to (and dreading) the news reports from overseas. It meant learning endless acronyms and rules. It meant trying to make sense of a sea of forms and paperwork. It meant full immersion into the life of a military spouse. In many ways, it was very similar to the experience of any new military spouse.
In some ways, however, Thom’s challenge was different. Not only did he have little experience with the military lifestyle, but he also had to face the realities of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) head on and all alone. To the Army, WE did not exist.
Being married was challenging for me as well. As a non-commissioned officer, I had often talked with my soldiers about the importance of family, but I had never experienced the feeling of having someone at home. I didn’t understand what a difference that would make during a deployment.
Thom and I overcame most of the immediate challenges of military marriage fairly easily. The staff at the Soldier Readiness Center at Fort Dix was very helpful, assisting us with the paperwork associated with Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance (SGLI) and casualty notification. Problems like base access, medical care and dependent status where obviously not addressed. These issues will continue to hang over our marriage due to the impact of DOMA.
My greatest fear is something bad happening to Thom while I’m deployed. Unlike my fellow (read: straight) married service members, I can’t expect to be granted emergency leave to go be with him. He cannot be added to my health care, receive married Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) or access any military base.
Despite the current issues, the repeal of DADT in September was still a big relief. Having the ability to reach out to my friends in the military, the knowledge that I cannot be removed from service for being gay, and the ongoing support and advice I’ve received both from fellow gay Soldiers on the internet and from the NCO’s and officers I’ve sought out, has made the last six months far easier then I could have imagined.
For Thom, the deployment has been a long series of challenges and discoveries. He has quickly assimilated to the unique culture and language of the military. In our rush to marry, we skipped much of the time that many couples use to learn and adapt to simply being married. Our families have been incredibly supportive. They’ve included Thom in holidays and have made every effort to make life easier for both of us. Thom continues to amaze me with his resiliency and ability to tackle any problems that come our way on the home front. I count myself fortunate to have both him and our families in my corner.
At work, I am fortunate to have an excellent relationship with my immediate supervisor and team. We have a small team and work on a remote base. Our ability to function is dependent on complete trust in one another and the confidence we have in each other’s abilities. I made the decision to be open with both the military personnel and the U.S. civilians that I interact with daily. I believe that being honest during this experience has made me a better Soldier and leader.
I know that the challenges will continue when I return home. Because of DOMA, we will not be able to reside in a house on the Navy installation where my unit is located. Thom will still not have my health coverage (we will have to cover his costs on our own), nor will he have base privileges. Living in Tennessee, we will have additional legal challenges in situations such as hospital room access in the event of an accident. We aren’t legally married in the eyes of the local or state law. We will still file our taxes separately. In the event I am ordered to conduct a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move, we will have to pay out-of-pocket to cover his move and the additional expenses. We will make less than other families in similar situations in both benefits and pay.
I know that the majority of these challenges are out of my chain of command’s control. While I am confident they will consider the stress and pressures that exists for couples in our situation, they will be incapable of resolving them. I have faith, however that good leaders exist and will do as much as possible within the scope of their authority.
I am proud to be a U.S. Soldier. I am proud of my husband and his decision to face these challenges with me, especially while I’m deployed. The past year strengthened my faith in the military and the support it provides families. Thom and I both understand that we have a long fight ahead before we receive equal treatment as a couple, but we are proud to be at the tip of the spear.
Sgt 1st Class Ijpe DeKoe is assigned to the 489th Civil Affairs Battalion, currently deployed to Badghis Province, Afghanistan. His husband, Thomas Kostura, lives in East Hampton, N.Y.