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Death in
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Death in
Afghanistan

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A lesbian soldier's mysterious death in Afghanistan raises many questions--including why more fallen service members have not been identified as gay. William Henderson investigates.

On Friday, September 28, Army specialist Ciara Durkin, a 30-year-old corporal in the Massachusetts National Guard, was found dead with a single gunshot wound to her head at the Bagram Airfield military base in Afghanistan. Four days later, she was outed by her family as a lesbian -- the first casualty of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq to be posthumously identified as lesbian or gay. If any of the other some 4,000 U.S. soldiers killed in either conflict thus far have been gay, their families haven't said. But given the mysterious circumstances of Durkin's demise, her family felt compelled to go public.

"Ciara was a lesbian and that's bound to come out," her sister, Fiona Canavan, said October 2 in a statement to media outlets in Boston, near the Durkin family's adopted hometown of Quincy. "It is possible that someone over there found that out, and maybe they were very homophobic." She added that Durkin, who had been home on leave from Afghanistan just weeks before her death, had told her and her other siblings -- Ciara was the eighth of nine children in her Irish family -- that "she had concerns about things she was seeing when she was over there. She told us if anything happened to her, that we were to investigate it."

But the decision to disclose Durkin's sexual orientation was not easy--and perhaps illustrates why other families have not been as forthcoming. Durkin's family was concerned about her survivor benefits. According to Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, "don't ask, don't tell" ends at death; gay and lesbian casualties receive the same financial considerations as heterosexual casualties. Even so, the family decided to hold off on outing Durkin until after they had met with a military liaison. Relatives went so far as to ask the two LGBT newspapers in Boston not to run stories mentioning her sexual orientation, which was widely known in the local gay community, mostly because her gay brother, Pierce, is clerk of the Boston pride committee.

Yet almost as soon as the family opened the closet door with their comments to the media, they seemed to swing it closed again. At Durkin's October 6 funeral in Quincy, which was attended by Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick and Sen. John Kerry, nothing was said about her sexual orientation, and her fiancee, Haidee Loreto, was identified in the program as her "best friend."

The family declined interview requests to explain why. "We reached a consensus as a family--Haidee included -- to not have any further interviews with the media," Pierce wrote in an e-mail to The Advocate. "We need more time to grieve and process everything that's going on." Loreto has not spoken publicly at all about the woman who was to be her wife.

Meanwhile, the investigation into Durkin's death remains ongoing, according to the Department of Defense. Among the questions yet to be answered: Was a gun found near her body, suggesting that she killed herself? Was she indeed targeted for being gay? Although Durkin's family made her sexual orientation known to help the Army's inquiry, that fact may actually hamper it, since any gay soldiers with useful information may be less likely to come forward because of "don't ask, don't tell."

"When sexual orientation plays a role in a military investigation, young gay and lesbian service members are often reluctant to talk with investigators out of fear that they themselves will be investigated," says SLDN spokesman Steve Ralls. "Sexual orientation always adds an additional barrier to an investigator's work to get information."

Two autopsies were performed on Durkin's body, one by the military and one at the behest of her family, but no results have been released yet. Following the second one, on October 7, Durkin's body was cremated. A portion of her ashes will remain in Quincy, while another portion was flown to her birthplace of County Galway, Ireland--her family emigrated when she was 9 years old. A third portion will eventually be interred, with full military honors, at Arlington National Cemetery.

Despite their mixed messages, SLDN's Ralls is full of praise for the Durkins. "They have made sure that the public understands that there are proud lesbian and gay Americans who are serving and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan," he says. "They have made sure that Ciara will be remembered as a gay American who proudly served her country."

If that's any consolation to the family, no one knows. Subsequent to her funeral, their only comment has been a simple statement posted at a Web site they created in her name. "We hope the results of the investigation will give us answers and therefore some closure," it reads. "We owe it to Ciara to see this through with dignity."

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