Four days before Christmas 2015, Air Force Maj. Adrianna Vorderbruggen was killed when a Taliban suicide bomber drove a motorcycle packed with explosives into a security patrol she was leading near Bagram Air Base in eastern Afghanistan. It was the deadliest day for the U.S. military in Afghanistan in 18 months, in what was supposed to be the waning days of the war. Five others were killed in the attack, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility.
Vorderbruggen is remembered as a wife, mother, sister, daughter, and friend to many. "She's a hero, and I hope she's a hero to all of us, not just to me," remembers her older brother Christopher.
Contrary to some reports, Vorderbruggen was not the first active-duty openly gay female service member to die in combat. (U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Donna R. Johnson, a married lesbian, was previously killed in Afghanistan by a suicide bomber, on October 1, 2012.) Nevertheless, Major Vorderbruggen was very much a pioneer.
Adrianna and her wife Heather Lamb's relationship had all the forbidden hijinks of a quirky '80s rom-com.
"I was in the Air Force stationed as a communications officer at McChord Air Force Base in Washington State," remembers Lamb. "I started to notice Adrianna was often in the gym working out at the same time I was there. For a couple months I was admiring her triangle (diamond) perfect-form push-ups from afar and trying to think of a way to say hi to her without seeming weird.
"If I ever had a chance to walk by her in the hallway at the gym before we met, I would try to catch her eye and smile at her. I even got up the nerve to say hi once when we passed each other outside jogging on the jogging path by the flight line. We finally met at a women's club in Seattle. I recognized her on the dance floor and told my friend I was going to go meet a woman I had been wanting to meet for ages from the base, and I went up and introduced myself.
"The next day, when I told some civilian friends of mine that I was so excited about meeting her, and I told them she was an OSI [Air Force Office of Special Investigations] agent, they were worried for me. They thought I should be scared it was some kind of setup for catching people under 'don't ask, don't tell.' One of them had a sister who had faced that situation in the '80s or early '90s in the Navy, when they really did run full investigations on people for being gay. Later I learned that OSI didn't do that anymore by the time we met [in 2005]. But my friends made me feel nervous for a while. Finally a good friend of hers who went to college with Adrianna at the U.S. Air Force Academy convinced me she was legit, and we went on our first date.
"She just always seemed content to accept how things were, no matter what it was. She never complained. I always admired her ability to sit down with just about anyone and have a genuinely interested conversation with them, or to say yes to any suggestion for an activity or adventure and have fun.
"She was always patient with me when I needed it, and she forgave my many mistakes. She was fun-loving and loved to play. She was strong and loved sports. She loved to be around friends. These are things that made her an excellent mother as well. She was patient with Jacob [their 4-year-old son]. She could always make either Jacob or me laugh when we most needed it. She saw the humor in everything. She connected with Jacob through their playfulness. She could play one of his invented games with him for hours and be having tons of fun with him, even when he was just a toddler and preschooler. He knew she loved being with him and playing with him, and he loved her so much. He loved the sports games they would play together -- she was the best at teaching him soccer and baseball. They had special routines and games that were just for them and I could never do quite right."
Adrianna and Heather were instrumental in repealing "don't ask, don't tell"; in the year following its repeal, they advised the White House on best practices for implementing the new policy. There they joined Tracey Hepner, the wife of Tammy Smith, the first openly gay U.S. general, to talk about how the military was adapting to change in 2011.
"Adrianna and Heather were so important to LGBT service members because they weren't afraid to simply be who they were: a military family," says Hepner. "In 2011 they had a son and made no secret of their life and of being parents. The very act of being who they were as a family was an act of courage because they were breaking new ground in an Air Force that was adjusting to what it might mean to have same-sex families in their ranks. Adrianna and Heather role-modeled what a happy, committed military family was all about, regardless of orientation."
Lamb lobbied during the Human Rights Campaign's "Voices of Honor" event, designed for gay veterans to speak with Congress members and military leaders about the effects "don't ask, don't tell" were having on their lives.
"It was an amazing opportunity and so important to us," says Lamb, "because the active-duty members, like Adrianna, couldn't speak for themselves at that time, due to how the law was designed."
"Without a doubt, Heather's prior military service experience gave her a unique perspective about being impacted by 'don't ask, don't tell' as both a service member and a partner," says Hepner. "This was vital to informing congressional members because the law prevented Adrianna from telling anyone how she and her family were impacted by DADT. Lobby events such as Voices of Honor were a way of bypassing the silence imposed by the law. Heather was literally Adrianna's voice."