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Left behind

Left behind


For gay soldiers fighting in Iraq, getting information to their partners back home is its own kind of battle. Bernice Yeung finds out what it's like to be a world away without military support.

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.

"You know 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.

Because the 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 emergency.

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.

The 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 felt.

"The U.S. 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."

As a 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.

"It was 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 network."

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.

Limited 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 straight couples.

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.

Same-sex military 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.

"We advise 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," says Ralls.

Daimeon Pilcher, 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."

"I loved 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."

That's a 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.

"I 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."

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