Dear Editor, and fellow LGBT warriors:
Yesterday I had the honor of attending the very first LGBT Pride celebration at Fort Benning, GA, home of Army Infantry, Queen of Battle. Brigadier General Tammy Smith, the first openly LGBT general officer in the United States military, shared a profound personal story about her own career in the Army under policies that kept her from being the “authentic leader” that she wanted to be.
She told about how she met her wife, Tracey Hepner, and how she decided that she could no longer hide such an important part of her life from the Army. As a colonel, she had submitted her retirement papers until she heard Admiral Mike Mullen’s famous testimony before members of Congress in which the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs gave a heartfelt recommendation for the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Tammy Smith remained in the military, was promoted to general officer, and was able to introduce “her wife” Tracey to her comrades in the Army after repeal.
Yesterday BG Tammy Smith called me up on the stage at Fort Benning for a special presentation. She personally thanked AVER for all our efforts, and she presented me with a beautiful rainbow challenge coin in recognition of our efforts to allow her to become the authentic leader she had always wanted to be, the type of leader that the US military values as the very core of the armed services. I was deeply honored to accept this special award on your behalf.
It has been a difficult Pride Month with the attack in Orlando that was quite simply a hate crime against all of us who live and love in the LGBT community. In the midst of a divisive political season, the arguments very quickly devolved into concerns about terrorism and assault weapons. We know better. We have had to fight for our existence before. And we have prevailed. This month, AVER color guards led parades from New York City to Columbus to Denver. LGBT veterans joined us in record numbers. We are the voice and the proud face of LGBT veterans across the country, and from people like General Tammy Smith our leadership and our work has been recognized and honored.
It is quite possible that on Friday of this week the US military will honor its promise to open service to Transgender patriots who volunteer to defend our nation’s freedom. That will be one more major victory for AVER and all Americans who have worked for so long to bring about LGBT service. It will be a day to celebrate, and to consider our future mission.
Last week, I attended a Pride event at the Atlanta VA Hospital here in my hometown of Decatur, GA. At that event, I made some great contacts and we talked about programs targeted specifically to LGBT veterans. We shared ideas. They listened. We made plans to meet again.
You as dedicated members of AVER have been recognized for your efforts in bringing about the changes we see in the US military. Our efforts as both the nation’s LGBT Veterans Service Organization and the oldest LGBT group to challenge and defeat the 100-year-old policy against our service must continue. We must be vigilant, thoughtful, and compassionate caretakers of what we have achieved and what we have yet to imagine as LGBT people become integral and valued members of the US military and honored recipients of the VA benefits and care that we have earned. Our mission must continue. It is a vital and honorable duty.
BG Tammy Smith is moving on to a command in Korea. In saying goodbye she and Tracey thanked me for AVER’s efforts on their behalf. “You are my victory,” I said to them. General Smith turned with a smile and replied “Thank you for winning.” That is a message that I send along to you all tonight as members of American Veterans for Equal Rights. Thank you for fighting. Thank you for winning. You are the best.
Danny Ingram, National President Emeritus
on behalf of President Steve Loomis and your national board
Editor’s Note: American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER) is the oldest and largest chapter-based, all-volunteer national Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Veterans Service Organization in the United States, and the nation’s only LGBT VSO recognized by the Veterans Administration. The organization just celebrated it 26th anniversary.