February 10, 2013

Tracy Johnson is a staff sergeant in the North Carolina National Guard. The views expressed here are her own.

Four months ago, my wife, Donna, was killed in Afghanistan. She was 29 when she and two other soldiers from her unit became the victims of a suicide bomber. Thursday, Valentine’s Day, would have been our first anniversary.

I am sharing our story partly to memorialize Donna — but also in the hopes that other families won’t have to go through what I did.

Donna and I met 6 1/2 years ago. Two proud Americans who wanted to serve our country, I was stationed at Fort Bragg and Donna soon joined the North Carolina National Guard. Before we knew it, we were deeply in love. People say that when you know, you know. Donna and I just knew.

We shared the same vision of life, love and happiness. We wanted to share life’s joys and adventures and sorrows. We intended to grow old together. We couldn’t imagine life without each other, so after “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed, we got married.

Usually, widowed spouses are personally informed by a casualty officer and provided with grief counseling. They are invited to meet the casket as it is returned to American soil. Later, during the funeral service, they are ceremonially presented with the flag that covered their loved one’s coffin.

On the day my wife died, I read online that three soldiers had been killed in the area where Donna was stationed. She hadn’t called home that morning, breaking our routine. As my worry grew, I got a call from my in-laws. A pair of national guardsmen had gone to their home, not mine.

Although Donna and I were legally married in the District of Columbia last February, I was denied the ceremonies, rituals and spousal survivor’s benefits that usually go to widows because Donna and I are both women. This was not because of any military rule discriminating against same-sex couples bravely serving our country. It was because of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a 1996 law that says same-sex widows cannot be treated equally when their spouses are killed.

Every member of the military I have interacted with has treated me with compassion and care. Many have expressed sorrow and regret that they are not allowed to treat me as an equal. The Defense Department indicated last week that it will extend some — not all — spousal benefits to same-sex couples. Any such steps are welcome, but I want to be clear: As long as DOMA is federal law, our government is required to treat same-sex military partners and widows like me as second-class citizens in the country we have sacrificed to defend.

Army widows belong to an honorable and respected community that is a source of strength in the midst of deep grief and loss. Its members are given symbols of the shared sacrifice that they and so many before them have made. We widows are given financial support to deal with the bills that we used to share with our spouses, as well as medical and psychological care to deal with the unspeakable trauma of losing the love of your life. It means something to be called an Army widow.

Because Donna and I are both women, our love and shared sacrifice are not valid to our government. But in my heart, I know the truth. And I am able to carry on because I believe that our nation is ready to do what is right.

Donna was proud to serve our country, and she gave her life to protect our freedom. I know what it meant to her to have the freedom to marry the woman she loved.

Until DOMA is ruled unconstitutional, other loving husbands and wives will share my story. They deserve to receive that official visit, the grief counseling and the survivor’s benefits; they deserve to be given the flag that draped their beloved spouse’s coffin.

Any law that says they do not deserve these things is wrong. Any law that says I am not Donna’s widow is wrong.

We cannot change the past or heal the hurt of those left behind. But we can honor their memory by doing what is right. It’s time to end DOMA. I have to keep believing that one day, one way or another, the country Donna died for will treat us as equals.