FORT HOOD — Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith is still learning how to introduce her spouse, she said.
The two met 10 years ago, but for more than seven of those years, Smith’s relationship with Tracey Hepner was a fireable offense.
“I had to train myself to introduce her,” said Smith, deputy chief of staff for the U.S. Army Reserve. “It’s emotional to be able to do that.”
The one-star general traveled from Fort Belvoir, Va., to be the guest speaker at Fort Hood’s first Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month observance Wednesday at Club Hood. It was hosted by the III Corps Equal Opportunity office.
“We celebrate pride month because the military is an organiza-
tion that values its people,” Smith said. “We celebrate pride month because we want to be an organization that attracts and retains the best all-volunteer force on the planet.”
More than 200 people attended the event, giving Smith a standing ovation after she shared her story.
Hepner said she had to take a moment Wednesday morning to really take it all in.
“Less than three years ago, I couldn’t even exist. ... (Today) I was a guest of the commander,” she said.
During the event, six civilian and soldier volunteers read the presidential proclamation recognizing June as LGBT Pride Month.
First Lt. Omar Villa, of III Corps, was one of the volunteers. He was in his ROTC program at North Georgia College and State University when “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed and said he has never really faced any issues since arriving at Fort Hood about a year and a half ago. In January, he married his spouse, Matthew Lowery, in Seattle and the two were excited to attend the pride event.
“Any challenge we’ve faced, isn’t in the military,” Villa said. “In my section, I’m blessed with people who totally accept me. ... Any problems have been off post.”
After the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in June 2013, the federal government soon began recognizing the marriages of same-sex couples. Some states, including Texas, still do not.
“I’m proud of him in this situation,” Lowery said. “I know we are in a red state, so I’m proud of him for stepping up.”
Capt. Robert Caruso, an openly gay chaplain with 4th Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, gave the opening and closing prayers. He said he appreciated Fort Hood making such an event possible. Not only was listening to Smith’s 22-minute speech inspiring, Caruso said, it showed those struggling with similar issues in their personal life they are not alone.
“There’s someone out there who knows a little bit about what they’re going through,” Caruso said. “It’s helping those to seek out people to help them with their journey in life.”
For Smith, that journey led her to live separate lives — one with her military friends, and another she could never acknowledge in uniform for fear of outing herself. She began her freshman year as an ROTC cadet at the University of Oregon the same year the Defense Department created policy to make being gay a mandatory discharge.
For 24 years, she lived a double life. Once she met Hepner, the pressure and mental stress became so much she nearly retired in 2009. After the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” in 2011, the couple married in March 2012. Smith became the first openly gay general officer when she chose to have Hepner promote her.
“I would have been disrespectful to Tracey had I continued to live that lie when I didn’t have to. I would have disrespected my family to not be authentic in what we were entering into,” Smith said. “It had nothing to do with my orientation. It was an expression of my family. ... However you comprise your family is your family. And that’s OK. It’s your support system.”
Rose L. Thayer is the military editor for the Killeen Daily Herald. She joined the paper in February 2011 as a health and military reporter. View her complete profile Here. You can contact Rose L. Thayer at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7463. Follow her on Twitter at KDHmilitary.