As the same-sex spouse of the Army’s first openly gay general, Tracey Hepner’s attendance at the State of the Union address tonight as a guest of the First Lady will be the pinnacle of a long journey.
“Less than two years ago, I couldn’t exist, and tonight I am an invited guest, to sit beside the first lady in her box and personally witness the message of her husband,” Hepner told Army Times. “It is incredible.”
That journey includes Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal, implementation of that repeal, the launch of her organization the Military Partners and Families Coalition, and the recent announcement that some military benefits would be extended to same-sex spouses.
Hepner’s wife, Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith, will accompany Hepner, but she will watch the State of the Union from the White House. Smith is director for Human Capital Core Enterprise for the Army Reserve in Washington, D.C.
“Although I’m sitting in that box, I will be representing all our military families, not just me,” Hepner said. “We are military families that just happen to be gay. We are military families first and foremost, serving our country.”
The military still cannot extend many benefits to same-sex spouses because of the Defense of Marriage Act.
“The announcement to extend some of the benefits shines a spotlight on DOMA, how damaging it is still, that it’s an impediment to what the military wishes to do, which is to make every service member equal,” Hepner said. “Those are service members’ benefits they cannot extend to their families.”
Tonight, Hepner said she will be thinking of Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan, a vocal military equality advocate who died of cancer this week. Because of the Defense of Marriage Act, Morgan’s wife, Karen, will not have access to the same benefits as a straight spouse.
Hepner faced a whiplash of emotions when she received the call Sunday from the White House that she would be Michelle Obama’s guest, quickly followed by a call that Morgan had died.
Hepner said her first thought was that instead of her at the State of the Union, it should be Morgan’s wife or Staff Sgt. Tracy (Dice) Johnson, whose wife, Staff Sgt. Donna Johnson, was killed Oct. 1 by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan.
“I’m honored to represent them; they will be with me, there is no doubt,” Hepner said.
After she received the news about Morgan, Hepner said she put her head in her hands and began to weep.
“She was such a warrior,” Hepner said of Morgan, choking with emotion. “She fought for her country, and she fought for her family, she fought for all of our families. She left behind a beautiful wife and a beautiful daughter … Up until January, she was still fighting for her family to make sure her government would take care of her family when she was no longer able to do so.”
Morgan’s story can be told because of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal. “But we don’t know how many more suffered because we were always bound by silence,” Hepner said.
It has been a long journey, but there is still more to be done to extend equal rights to same-sex spouses of service members.
“Charlie will not be treated equally under the law, even though she and Karen were married,” Hepner said. “Tammy and I are married. We’re as married as we can be, and there’s nothing on our marriage license that’s different, but we’re different in the eyes of the law.”