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Smith Serves and Protects as First Openly Gay Flag Officer

After years of wrangling over its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, the U.S. military is making strides to be more inclusive of LGBTQ service members. Women, too, are seeing a day in the sun. Although they cannot serve in the infantry, armor or artillery branches of the military, the Army graduated its first females from Ranger School this summer.

The military is growing to be more reflective of the sort of attitudes shared by U.S. society as a whole, but the changes are still new enough for trailblazers to be remarkable. U.S. Army Reserve Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith, as the first openly gay flag officer in the U.S. military, is one of the military’s trailblazing women.

Shortly after “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed, Smith married her wife, Tracey Hepner, in a ceremony. Smith says that she was now free to stop hiding an essential part of who she was. “I always describe it [as] I spent those 25 years living a compartmentalized life where I had my military life and my personal life,” she says.

“The day ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ was repealed it was like that fear and that weight got lifted off of me. I no longer had to feel as if a little slipup in language or something I said to someone or something that I did or mentioned would reveal who I really was.”

When Smith joined the military, intolerance of homosexuality did not seem so unusual. The LGBTQ community was marginalized in practically every strata of society. As Smith puts it, she would have had to hide her true self in almost any job or career.

“Whether I hid myself in the military, whether I hid myself had I become a teacher, whether I hid myself being a bank teller like my mom, in the ’80s that still probably would have been my path anyway, because that’s where our society was,” she says.

Smith is very matter of fact about her reasons for signing up for the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) after high school. “It was an economic decision based on a desire to go to college,” she says. Smith grew up in Oakland, a small town in central Oregon formerly known as “the turkey capital of the world.”

Although her parents worked in town—her father was the chief of police—Smith was involved with Future Farmers of America (FFA) raising rabbits in her backyard and sheep on a neighbor’s plot of land in town. A friend let her keep a steer on a farm out of town.

Even though Smith liked FFA, it was clear that agriculture was not her No. 1 choice for a career that would last her the rest of her life. College was one avenue out of Oakland, she knew, but it seemed difficult financially, at least until she saw an ad in an FFA magazine describing ROTC benefits that included covering college tuition. So Smith applied for a scholarship.

Although college was academically challenging due to Oakland’s lack of a college track for students, Smith ended up earning a bachelor’s in history from the University of Oregon in 1986. She received a ROTC scholarship all four years.

“I really just meant to get my college degree, do my minimum time and that would be it, and I would have accomplished my goal,” she says.

However, she was hooked by the values the military espoused. She loved, and still loves, the ethos of dignity and respect among service members and the sense of honor she feels to serve her nation.

Since then, she worked her way up through the Army Reserve and now is responsible for synchronizing activities for the Army Reserve staff at the Pentagon.

In terms of her sexual identity, Smith knew from the outset that it was not condoned by the military. But the values she so admired and sense of camaraderie she felt took some of the sting out of having to hide who she was, at least at first.

Maintaining a facade became more difficult over time. As society began to embrace the gay community, the military lagged behind in its attitude toward the LGBTQ community. “I was observing a divergence in society that was not paralleled in my own work life,” Smith says.

Smith says that, in addition to the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) decision in the Edith Windsor Supreme Court case had a major impact on her working life. With the resolution of that case in 2013, all military married couples became eligible for a family ID card and military housing.

She and her wife chose to move into military housing. “We have felt so included in the military community as a result of having the opportunity to live in military housing,” Smith says. “It’s the difference between policies that are inclusive and actually having an environment that is inclusive.”

Smith says that women and LGBTQ individuals considering the military should absolutely sign up. They will have the chance to serve their country, and if that is not incentive enough, it also is a path to an affordable college degree and a career in whatever field they may choose down the line.

Since college, Smith has gone on to receive two master’s degrees and a doctorate.

“I would hope that women and members of the LGBT community would not self select, thinking that they are not welcome there, simply because they are not a member of the majority,” Smith says. “I would want them to know that, yes, they are welcome.”

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