The picture tells a story

  • Published
  • By Col. Leah G. Lauderback
  • National Air and Space Intelligence Center
There is a picture frame on my desk holding a casual snapshot of my wife and me. There's nothing particularly special about the small, silver frame. But in my 22 years in the Air Force, it's the first time I've ever had a picture of anyone on my desk at work. Seeing my loved one during the duty day is such a joy. It puts a smile on my face, especially during those tough days, and it reminds me there is more to life than work.

Having a picture of my spouse on my desk is not something I take for granted because less than five years ago, it would not have been possible.

I am a gay Airman who served the first portion of my Air Force career under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Instituted on February 28, 1994, DADT prohibited discriminating against homosexual or bisexual service members or applicants, but also barred openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual persons from military service.

As Pride month is celebrated across the nation and within the Department of Defense, I would like to take this opportunity to explain, from one Airman's perspective, what it meant to have DADT repealed on September 20, 2011.

In 1994, I was just beginning my career in the U.S. Air Force. There's only one word to describe my early years as an Airman under DADT - paranoia. Each day, I lived with the fear of exposure and losing my career. I worried a phone call to the office by my then-girlfriend would raise suspicion. The risk of being spotted together in town made dinners out a rare treat. I couldn't share my weekend plans with fellow Airmen and rarely let them know if I had done something by myself or with friends outside of work.

With each new assignment, I felt compelled to find one person with whom I could share my secret. Opening up to someone I trusted gave me peace of mind. It was comforting to know there was someone to call my girlfriend if anything ever happened to me. Reaching out to a wingman also improved my resiliency by giving me an outlet for communication. Once someone knew my secret, I could open up to them and share stories about my other life.

I won't blame DADT for my relationships ending time after time, but it certainly didn't make it easier for me to build something lasting. As military members, we rely on our support system of family, friends and loved ones. When you're unable to bring your significant other to an ALS graduation or Dining Out, it makes for a lonely evening.

Overall, I'm a better, more complete Airman since the repeal of DADT. My work-life balance improved dramatically with the introduction of a wonderful woman whom I married a little more than a year ago. We enjoy everything about the military life, and we do it together. We have been welcomed with open arms at every event we attend - both military and civic. My General Officer supervisors congratulated me and immediately welcomed my wife into the family. Similarly, the Airmen I see every day around base and in the office ask how we are, what are we doing this weekend and what fun things have we experienced in the community. This is special to me and makes me love the Air Force even more!

Today in the U.S. Air Force, all Airmen, regardless of sexual orientation, may serve openly. And while orientation remains a personal and private matter, it's also not something you have to hide, and for that I am grateful. The repeal of DADT gave me the opportunity to serve this great nation as my whole-self. And it allowed me to put a small, silver picture frame in a place of honor -- front and center on my desk.