By Irene Andrews
History was made in Killeen, Texas, when Fort Hood, the largest Army base in the free world, held its first Pride month celebration on June 25.
My wife and I carpooled with several LGBTQ and straight allies to Fort Hood, for the event, which took place in the Club Hood Grande Ballroom. We were some of the first to arrive and were given seats in the center row. I quickly set up my video camera in the aisle to get a perfect shot of the podium.
As soldiers in camouflage fatigues began to trickle in, I walked around and spoke with them. I met John, who introduced himself as the husband of Captain Robert W. Caruso, the chaplain who would be giving the invocation. John and I were viewing large posters on display: a photo of the Oval Office with President Obama signing the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, black-and-white snapshots of the first LGBT protest in front of the White House, circa 1965, led by Frank Kameny, and other photos with captions of interest.
The Black Jacks Brass Quintet of the 1st Cavalry Division began to warm up and in the midst of the music and buzz of conversations, you could feel the excitement and growing anticipation of what was to come.
I felt compelled to capture these moments as they unfolded before me. I grabbed my phone and began using it to do impromptu 30 second interviews: “Please state your name and tell me why it is important for you to be here today.”
Everyone I approached was eager to share their thoughts and leaned close to speak loudly into the microphone. They wanted to be heard as much as I wanted to record their voices. The din of musicians tuning instruments was not going to deter them. We all sensed the significance and gravity of this moment. We were never going back. “Silent No More” was a reality.
This was the beginning of a new Army tradition, and because Fort Hood was leading the way, I knew the surrounding civilian communities — and indeed the whole state of Texas — would follow — even if kicking and screaming. They would have to acknowledge us and respect us and see us for who we are.
Diversity and inclusion were winning the day. Same-sex couples were proudly sitting together, one in uniform, the other in street clothes, both smiling broadly.
Sgt. Major Michael Horton and her wife were among the mixed — military/civilian — couples there. Sgt. Major Horton said, “I am here to help support our Pride month. We have seen a big change in the Army and it has made it a better unit, a better force.”
Her wife, Consuela Jackson Horton, added, “I’m here to show support and I’m actually very excited to see the military community coming together as one.”
I was able to catch up with Capt. Caruso, who said, “I’m here because this is a momentous event. It’s historical, and I’m excited about it. I’m a gay man, out of the closet, and I’ve been a chaplain for two years, after seven years serving in ordained ministry as a civilian, and I am now married to my partner John.
“Our community is now able to express themselves and be open with who they are,” Caruso said. “My ministry is to all soldiers, but I have now had many gay and lesbian soldiers come to me with their issues. It is a different Army now. Its a good thing, but also very new.”
Caruso agreed that this new openness is making the Army stronger and healthier. “’Strength in Diversity’ is a core Army value,” he said. “Diversity is the anchor that holds the Army together, in my opinion. It’s what makes us who we are. We are a microcosm of society.”
Patricia Amazon Muldrow Roberts came with a group from the Bell County and Stonewall Democrats. She said she made the trip because “it is an opportunity and a privilege to be at Fort Hood to honor our soldiers. Our commander-in-chief has set a tone that now gay people, heterosexual people and transgender people — it doesn’t matter — can walk proudly with their partners and not be afraid. I’m proud to be here. I’m so glad to be here. As a black woman I can say the first time we were recognized and we were able to go into a restaurant and we were able to not use the back door — what that felt like. … I just wanted to stand beside my brothers and sisters and let them know we’re all one!”
Brigadier Gen. Tammy Smith was the guest speaker. She was the first LGBT Army member to have her wife, Tracey Hepner, promote her, as is the tradition for a service member’s spouse to do. This action was their “coming out” moment.
Smith shared her deeply personal struggle to live “two separate lives” for more than 24 years while serving in the military, until she met and fell in love with Tracey. Smith said she nearly walked away from a distinguished military career because she could no longer deal with the stress of lying about who she was. She refused to disrespect her wife and their relationship by denying their love and commitment.
Shortly before she was set to retire, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed and Smith decided not to leave the army. She and Tracey proudly live on base in a family housing unit.
Smith’s story stirred many in the audience. Straight allies I invited to attend with me were moved to tears. On a gut level, they began to understand the sacrifice Smith and so many LGBT service members were forced to make.
Protecting the rights and freedoms of fellow U.S. citizens would not afford them any safety. They would be denied those very same rights and witness the court martial and disgraceful dismissal their LGBTQ comrades and battle buddies.
I will never forget the moment my wife and I introduced ourselves to Gen. Smith and thanked her and Hepner. We were humbled by their courage and grace.
Coming out changed their lives as it my and my wife, Joan’s, lives. We left the event knowing that when we all have the courage to be our beautiful, loving, joyfully authentic selves, we release a power within us that reverberates like ripples from a stone breaking the surface of water.
The choice to be authentic transforms each one of us and rocks the world around us. We become part of a positive “chain reaction.” We begin to witness that which we have always hoped for: Equality. I believe Gen. Smith would agree that our families and our future depend on all of us coming out.
Happy Pride. Be out, be loud and be proud.