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    Air Force Tech Sgt. and husband attend West Point dinner honoring LGBT service members

    Photo By Sgt. 1st Class Stanley Maszczak | U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Erwynn Umali-Behrens, right, a professional military...... read more read more



    Story by Sgt. 1st Class Stanley Maszczak 

    174th Infantry Brigade

    WEST POINT, N.Y. - “Family support is foundational to our military identity,” said Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith, Director, Army Reserve Human Capital Core Enterprise, and a keynote speaker at the Second Annual Knights Out Dinner, held at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, March 23, 2013. “For those of you who are already married, or have partners who are potential spouses, you are a military family that happens to be LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender), not an LGBT family that happens to be military. A stable home life provides a soldier the freedom of movement to meet the needs of the Army, which we know are very demanding.”

    Many service members in the room lived with secret families during the days of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) policy. Smith was one of those soldiers.

    Just before giving her keynote address, Smith received the Courage Award from Knights Out, a non-profit organization of West Point alumni, staff, faculty and allies who are united in supporting the rights of LGBT soldiers to openly serve their country. Jonathan Hopkins, West Point Class of 2001 and Executive Director of Knights Out, presented Smith with the award.

    “Personal Courage is an Army value,” said Hopkins. “The Courage Award is meant to highlight those who stood up and made a difference… their actions inspire others, and motivate those who follow in their lead to be stronger and more capable leaders. They are an asset to us all.”

    After the repeal of DADT in 2011, Smith became the first openly gay flag officer when she included her partner, Tracey Hepner, Co-founder of the Military Partners and Families Coalition, in her August 2012 promotion ceremony. In traditional family fashion, Hepner pinned the new rank onto her partner’s uniform. Army promotion ceremonies frequently incorporate family as a way of recognizing the support system that has contributed to the soldier’s successful career and promotion. After decades of having to hide her own identity and relationship to Smith, Hepner was able to marry Smith in the District of Columbia in 2011 and now values the opportunity to be introduced and recognized as her partner.

    “It’s important for people to see us together as a military family, as our authentic selves,” said Hepner. “We help replace negative stereotypes with positive examples. It’s been a very positive experience.”

    The Knights Out dinner was attended not only by LGBT service members, veterans, and their families, but also straight supporters. One such supporter was Army Capt. Brandon Anderson, currently assigned to the 174th Infantry Brigade, First Army Division East, at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J. Anderson, who graduated from West Point in 2003, has served more than 36 months in combat. He’s been an infantry platoon leader, an adviser in the Helmand province of Afghanistan, and a company commander for Task Force Stryker.

    While he was never opposed to gays serving openly, Anderson said it was a personal relationship that helped move him to a place of open support of his LGBT brothers and sisters in arms.

    “I knew Jon Hopkins when he was a cadet – he was two years ahead of me. I saw him again at Captain’s Career Course, and he was always someone I looked up to and respected.”

    Anderson’s respect for Hopkins, the same Hopkins who is now Executive Director of Knights Out, is well-earned. Hopkins was fourth in his West Point class of 933 cadets. He received the Knox Award, given to the cadet with the highest rated military efficiency in the class. Multiple combat deployments later, after receiving three bronze stars including one with valor, Hopkins was called into his battalion commander’s office for two reasons. First, he was selected to be promoted to the rank of major a year early – an enormous achievement for an officer; and second, he was being investigated under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) policy. Fourteen months later, instead of being promoted early, Hopkins was discharged from the Army under DADT.

    “When I found out that he was gay,” Anderson said, “it made it personal … because at the end of the day, this is about people in the Army coming together, accepting their brothers and sisters not just as soldiers but as citizens.”

    Soldiers of all ranks notice when leaders, especially those like Anderson who are not LGBT, go out of their way to stand in support.

    “It’s a big deal to see straight leadership here to support gay soldiers,” said Army Sgt. Miguel Cano, a Team Chief for the 404th Signal Company, 77th Sustainment Brigade at JB MDL, who attended the event with his partner, Brian Driscoll. “At the end of the day, we’re all family – and not everyone realizes that yet.”

    Air Force Tech. Sgt. Erwynn Umali-Behrens, Professional Military Education Instructor for the Kish Airman Leadership School, 87th Force Support Squadron at JB MDL and his partner Will Umali-Behrens, Branch Manager for Robert Half International have received support from their military leaders and peers. They were special guests at the Knights Out dinner, having been the first same-sex couple to marry on a military installation. The two became a blended family in June 2012 with four school-age children from their previous marriages.

    “Family is the reason why we do things,” said Erwynn. “We do have support from our leadership, we do have support from our friends, coworkers and our kids, and that’s the awesome thing.”

    That support is also being felt at the service academies, and specifically at West Point. This was the first year that Spectrum, West Point’s gay-straight alliance, was recognized as an official group on campus and able to team up with Knights Out to be a part of the annual dinner. Cadet Katie Starr, a West Point sophomore, publicly came out last summer and immediately dove into service with the group, becoming its treasurer.

    Regarding the future of LGBT open service in the armed forces, Starr says things are looking better and better.

    “I see it as eventually being a non-issue – not any different than being black, or being a female,” Starr said. “Here at West Point, it’s awesome.”

    There have been many “firsts” in the last couple of years since the repeal of DADT but Smith reminded the group that these “firsts” are neither goals nor attempts at changing people. She said they are byproducts of soldiers being authentic to who they are and living the Army values. She reemphasized the importance of being soldiers first, LGBT second; and allowing their commitment to the Army’s mission to speak for itself.

    “Leadership is about being a role model,” Smith added. “I don’t think I’m a role model because I’m gay. I believe I’m a role model because I adhere to Army values by being true to my authentic self.”



    Date Taken: 03.23.2013
    Date Posted: 03.27.2013 11:55
    Story ID: 104171
    Location: WEST POINT, NY, US 
    Hometown: EDEN PRAIRIE, MN, US
    Hometown: NEWPORT NEWS, VA, US
    Hometown: WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA, US

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