Master Sgt. Angela Caruso-Yahne, 34th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, has completed five deployments, but number six is the first time she has attended a Yellow Ribbon event.
“From my perspective, I’ve had encouragement from my commander for previous deployments, to attend a Yellow Ribbon event, but it was never palatable for me to do so without my spouse,” she said.
Caruso-Yahne never attended (Yellow Ribbon) because she felt she would get moved into the singles track and not have her situation understood; that she wouldn’t be able to get the resources that she needed. Having met her spouse, Mandy, in college in 1997, the two wed in 1999. One month after the June 2013 repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, they made it legal with a second wedding ceremony.
“I really wanted to know how these things would relate to my spouse, but there was no platform for that conversation (during her previous deployments),” she said. “Just knowing that this resource is here and that it is open to same-sex spouses now has made a world of difference to me. In a sense it feels like my first deployment again because I’m getting all of this information and learning more about the benefits.”
Mandy, who had been through all five deployments with Caruso-Yahne, said she has been begging for something like this because she didn’t grow up in a military family or have any experience with the military.
“I had to ask her all of my questions because I didn’t have any official avenues to go to before (the repeal),” Mandy said.
Because of the law, they were afraid to say ‘I love you’ over the phone, especially during a deployment. So they used code words, Caruso-Yahne said. “’Keep your boots shined’ meant ‘I love you’,” she said.
After the repeal, Mandy looked online for resources and found The American Military Partners Association (AMPA), which she said became a huge resource for her. She said it helped her figure out the bare-bones basics before she could ever come to a Yellow Ribbon event.
“I’ve looked at MilitaryOneSource and others, but AMPA has been the most helpful because it’s people that have same-sex partners,” Mandy said. “They helped me understand what all the court decisions meant and how it was playing out in the DOD, when certain things were going to go into effect, when I could get an ID card and what that ID really meant. Yellow Ribbon helped me understand what the changes are when deployment kicks in.”
After a Yellow Ribbon financial management breakout session and benefits briefing, Caruso-Yahne said she thought it was very professional and well-managed, very clear and equitably stated so there was no question about any sort of favoritism or disregard of any group of people.
“In general, everything across the board (here) has been all-inclusive. There are so many different groups here that it’s not just same-sex partners and heterosexual partners, but there are also parents whose child is deploying, or parents who are deploying and their kids are here, single parents, brothers and sisters,” Mandy said. “I think they’ve been very good about being inclusive of all the different kinds of relationships. Everybody has a very unique situation and support system and no matter what it is, they’re all welcomed to bring their questions (here).”
The new kids on the block
In a fairly new relationship and facing her first deployment, Senior Airman Ellie Fry, 931st Air Refueling Group, McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, said she feels the culture of acceptance was there (in the military) before the repeal but that no one was allowed to talk about it.
“In the military we have our own support system–we’re family,” Fry said, alluding to that culture of acceptance despite the laws.
When her base Yellow Ribbon representative told her about the upcoming event, Fry called her then partner, Amanda Drake, to tell her to pack her bags for California. She explained the reason for the trip and said that it would be good for her (Fry), as a first-time deployer, and also beneficial to Drake to understand what to expect and what they both would be dealing with before, during and after the deployment.
“I’m kind of a tough shell. I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve,” Drake said. “I really didn’t consider all the emotions that we may go through, but now I realize that I am going to go through stuff.”
They will need to consider time differences in order to arrange calls to each other. They will need to communicate with and trust each other.
“If you don’t have communication, you aren’t going to make it,” Drake said. “You’re going to have to have trust–it’s your foundation. You have to know that your partner is going to support you while you’re gone.”
Both agreed that the Yellow Ribbon event they attended was beneficial in every aspect, including finances, legal issues, what to expect–especially as it relates to mental health and emotions, and that they were treated just like any other couple. Hearing from other couples about what they have been through was educational, Fry said.
They also said it was an experience to be at a military event and to be open with their relationship.
“She’s able to hold my hand and we can be affectionate with each other,” Drake said. “We don’t feel like we have to hid it. I’m not her friend here anymore–I’m her partner and it’s okay to say that. I really didn’t see the military coming this far with it because it was (considered) such a bad thing. People got kicked out just a few years ago for being gay.”
Believing that the law that was in place was the reason it was considered taboo, even though she thinks the underlying culture was one of acceptance in the military, Drake said that no one at the Yellow Ribbon event reacted in an adverse way.
“After all, they’re not going to get our gayness if we touch them, so it’s obvious that it was the laws that were pushing that (culture).”
(Note: Since the interview, and before her deployment, Senior Airman Ellie Fry married her partner and officially became Senior Airman Ellie Drake.)