Reflections of Pride: Arctic Guardian recalls challenges, opportunities of serving as a gay woman

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Jeanette Fuller
  • 176th Wing Public Affairs

As I approach retirement, and as the Alaska Air National Guard celebrates Pride Month, I reflect on my experience as a gay woman in a military career spanning over 30 years. 

I enlisted in the Georgia Air National Guard in 1990 and later joined the Alaska Air National Guard in 1990 and again in 2012. I owe much of who I am today to my time and experience in the Air National Guard. 

There have most assuredly been struggles related to being gay, but overall, I believe the military has made huge strides forward in both recognizing our right to serve and the historical contributions of the many years we served in silence and solitude.

When Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was rescinded in 2010, I was approached by old Alaska Air National Guard co-workers and friends who asked if I was willing to rejoin the 176th Wing? I admit that I hesitated.

I endured a nine-month long investigation from 1999 to 2000, which eventually led me to leave the Guard, and I had no idea what to expect. My friends assured me that much had changed and that I wouldn’t recognize the unit. I believed them and re-enlisted.

They were correct. Indeed, a lot has changed, and I have absolutely no regrets.

Reflecting on the challenging times, I come back to a crisp dawn morning in the late 1990s. My partner pulled into a secluded parking lot on Kulis Air National Guard Base far from the busy flightline. She helped me haul my duffel and chem bags out of the SUV, looked around to be certain no one saw us, and gave me a quick peck on the cheek. She handed me a travel mug of steaming coffee and told me to be careful. I said goodbye and made my way a quarter mile down to the aircraft that was to take me to our deployed location.

As I boarded the aircraft, couples – some with children, others without – hugged, kissed and said their goodbyes. I felt happy for them but envied the ease of their interactions as I thought of my loved one heading home with no one to share her anxiety for my safety. I prayed that nothing would happen to me because I knew she wouldn’t be the first to be notified, if at all. 

Later that same year, I witnessed a retirement ceremony for the first time where a wife was present with her husband. She was awarded a certificate and was publicly acknowledged for her participation and service during her husband’s career. He handed her flowers, spoke eloquently of her meaning to him, and kissed her in gratitude. I was very happy, but once again felt sadness as well as envy.

Fast forward 20-odd years. I was standing in a little chapel in Seattle with the same partner. We exchanged private vows as a couple years earlier, but as we exchanged them again that day, we became legally acknowledged as a married couple in all 50 states. And with this acknowledgement came the rights and privileges we had previously been denied.

Back in the 176th Wing, my spouse received a dependent ID, and I made a will with her listed as my emergency contact. Preparing for another deployment, I found peace knowing that the United States Air Force and the Alaska Air National Guard acknowledged her as my legal spouse and that she would be notified first if I was injured or worse.  She would have rights should I be killed. She would receive my remains. She would be honored with a flag should I perish.

At the departure on deployment day, she and my in-laws sent me off on my mission. I stood in the center of the crowd hugging them, gave my spouse a quick peck on the cheek and said goodbye. I introduced my family and spouse to my fellow deployers and their spouses and families. There was no awkwardness. We are one team, one fight, and I know my wife will never again be alone in her anxiety. 

I am planning my retirement now. I talked to a fellow retiree and asked for advice on food and, most importantly, on the flowers for my spouse. I am excited. Time has passed so quickly. My wife will pin on my retirement pin. I will hand her flowers, and we will be recognized together. I will thank her for all the mugs of coffee on cold winter mornings, for the goody bags on deployment, and for the times she supported me in anonymity and, thank heaven, in public.

I will tell my peers that there were many days I refused to face the snow and ice and wedge myself into the bowels of a merciless, broken aircraft, and would not have come in were it not for her “gentle” nudges to “buck up and do my duty.”

I am proud today. Proud to be a salty, often cranky but capable, maintainer. Proud to serve in the profession of arms. Proud to be a gay woman openly serving in the finest military unit in this country and the world with people I admire and respect. Proud to celebrate with my unit the wing’s 70th birthday.

I am proud to be able to retire soon from an organization that has given me so many opportunities and a fair share of challenges, a unit that shaped me into the person my mother proudly calls “daughter.”