John M. Becker

1st Openly Gay U.S. General: DADT Was So Stressful I Nearly Retired

Filed By John M. Becker | June 27, 2014 5:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living
Tags: Army, closets, DADT, Don't Ask Don't Tell, military, Military Partners and Families Coalition, pride, Tammy Smith, Tracey Hepner, U.S. military

tammy-smith-tracey-hepner.jpgThis year, as we've reported previously here at Bilerico, LGBT Pride Month is a special observance that's officially sanctioned by the Defense Department. Military installations across the country have been holding Pride events.

This week Brigadier General Tammy Smith, the first openly gay general in the United States military, traveled to Fort Hood, Texas to be the guest speaker at that post's inaugural LGBT Pride Month observance. In remarks delivered to a packed room of more than 200 people, Brig. Gen. Smith told her story and revealed that the stress of living under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" nearly brought her historic career to a premature end:

"After I met Tracey [Hepner, who would become her wife], my world changed, because now I could no longer as easily justify keeping my worlds separate. The very best thing in my life, I had to keep secret from other people. I could not share my family with my co-workers, with the people that I worked with. I had to keep that part of my life separate.

"And the mental stress, after I met Tracey, just completely increased, and it became too hard."

Smith, who met Hepner in 2004, said that by 2009 the stress had taken such a toll that she felt she needed to retire after 24 years of service.

"I could not handle living these two lives, I could not handle keeping Tracey a secret anymore; it was just too much stress. And so I requested a retirement, and my retirement orders were issued... I was heartbroken, because I love the Army. I love being a soldier. But the stress of keeping Tracey a secret at that time was simply too much for me.

Thankfully, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was repealed shortly thereafter. Smith was finally free to be open about her love for Tracey, and Hepner -- who co-founded the LGBT military group Military Partners and Families Coalition -- could finally come fully out as a military partner herself.

Smith, who was serving in Afghanistan at the time of repeal, described what that first day felt like:

"I got up that morning and I knew that the world was going to be different that day, and I walked down the street and I hoped I'd just catch somebody's eye... [who] was having the same type of day that I was. And I tell ya, I got nothing. It was just another day in Afghanistan -- we were out doing our mission; it was just like any other day.

"And you know what? That was good. That's exactly how we expected it to be and that was exactly as it should be. Nothing had changed for the military, though everything had changed for me."

Smith and Hepner married just a few months after DADT repeal, and very shortly after that, Smith was notified of her selection for promotion. Five months later she officially became Brigadier General Smith -- and at the promotion ceremony, her wife Tracey proudly pinned her star to her uniform.

Watch Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith -- American hero and LGBT trailblazer -- tell part of her story, after the break.

Photo of Hepner and Smith via Facebook.

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