On June 23, 2005,
marine captain Julianne Sohn sat in her office in
Fallujah, listening to the churn of helicopters as they
airlifted 19 soldiers to a nearby hospital.
what that sound means," says Sohn, recalling the
incident recently from her home in Los Angeles. On
what was dubbed the "bloodiest day" for
U.S. female soldiers in Iraq, a convoy of
marines--mostly women--was attacked by a
suicide bomber while stationed at a checkpoint. Six
were killed, and another 13 were injured.
Devastated by the
deaths, Sohn also knew that her girlfriend of five
years back home, Francesca Pisa, would worry that she had
been among the women killed. "I know the panic
it caused Francesca was enormous," she says.
military's "don't ask, don't
tell" policy required them to keep their
relationship a secret, Sohn hadn't listed Pisa as her
next of kin when she was deployed to Iraq in 2005.
This meant Pisa had no way of finding out whether her
partner was safe. Sohn had been afraid of this, so
before she left she developed a communication system with
her brothers, who were to call Pisa in case of an
After the suicide
bombing, Sohn wasn't allowed to call her family until
her unit's communication blackout was lifted. So
Pisa, who was living in New York City, became
increasingly worried. She spent the next 48 hours in
tears, running six-mile loops through Central Park to
distract herself from the TV news coverage. Two days
later Sohn was finally able to get in touch, and Pisa
received a comforting call from Sohn's brother John.
For Pisa, who
says she never expected to date someone in the military,
the experience made the consequences of "don't
ask, don't tell" hit home. Whether Sohn
was safe, injured, or worse, her partner would always be the
last to know.
couple's experience shows that in times of war, when
many soldiers are deployed overseas, the lack of
military-sponsored support, benefits, and courtesies
for service members' same-sex partners is keenly
military has a stellar reputation for taking care of spouses
in heterosexual marriages during deployment,"
says Steve Ralls of the Servicemembers Legal Defense
Network, which annually handles about 1,000 requests
for assistance from same-sex partners of military personnel.
"Gay service members are making the same amount of
sacrifices as their heterosexual colleagues, and yet
their loved ones are not cared for."
public-affairs officer for the Marine Corps, Sohn reported
her unit's whereabouts and activities in a
monthly newsletter sent to spouses and family. Pisa,
of course, didn't receive one.
ironic that I was putting together this newsletter about
what was going on in our unit so that other
people's girlfriends and spouses could have
some peace of mind," says Sohn, who is still in the
Individual Ready Reserves while working as an officer
with the Los Angeles Police Department.
"Francesca and I had to find ways to create our own
For Pisa, that
meant scouring the Internet for information about Sohn.
She checked the Department of Defense Web site to make sure
Sohn's name wasn't on the deceased list.
Pisa also Googled Sohn's name and read press
releases she had written to get a sense of what her partner
was experiencing in Iraq.
communication is one of the obvious challenges same-sex
partners face. They also miss out on free health care,
housing stipends, low-cost life insurance, and legal
protection--all of which are available to
Cases in point:
The Servicemembers' Civil Relief Act protects
military wives and husbands from eviction and bank
foreclosure while their spouses are on duty overseas;
family service centers on military bases offer job
training and seminars on how to help a service member
transition back to life at home; and the Department of
Defense and the White House even sponsor a yearly
Military Spouse Appreciation Day.
couples are also being left behind as more state
governments begin to grant domestic partnerships, civil
unions, and make adoption by gay and lesbian couples
easier. Any documentation that hints of a gay
relationship can prove risky.
them not to enter into civil unions while they're
still serving. If a gay or lesbian service member
wants to raise a family or get married, they simply
can't while they're in the military,"
25, says it is that duplicity that made him leave the
military after four years of service. Pilcher isn't
alone. According to the Williams Institute at the
University of California, Los Angeles, 4,000 service
members each year decide not to reenlist because of
"don't ask, don't tell."
every minute of the Air Force," he says. "I
didn't want to deal with [the secrecy] anymore.
I've had a couple of relationships end because
of it--it got to be way too stressful."
stress that Sohn and Pisa are all too familiar with. Sohn
could be redeployed to Iraq at any time through
December 31 of this year. Though she now lives in Los
Angeles, Pisa, a school administrator, chooses to stay
in New York.
don't want to go to L.A. and have her called up again
and have no community," explains Pisa.
"I really relied on my friends here. The
military is making it hard to have the guts to leave New
York City to be with her."