LOS ANGELES (MCT) — During a promotion ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, a proud wife placed a star insignia on her spouse’s uniformed shoulder — the official mark of a U.S. Army brigadier general.
With that simple gesture, Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith became the country’s first openly gay general.
The promotion of Smith, the highest-ranking gay or lesbian to acknowledge their sexual orientation while serving, comes less than a year after the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the policy that did not allow gay or lesbians to serve openly in the military.
Since the reversal last September, the relationship between the government and the armed forces has shifted to include more outreach to gay and lesbian service members.
Defense Sec. Leon Panetta posted a YouTube video thanking gay service members and praising the ban’s repeal. In June, the Pentagon hosted a Gay Pride Month event. And in July, members of the military wore their uniforms during a San Diego gay pride parade, the first time the Defense Department had allowed such a practice.
On Friday, more than 70 people clustered inside an auditorium at Arlington’s Women in Military Service for America Memorial.
Smith, then a colonel, strode in with her commanding offer on the stroke of 4 p.m. The audience sang the national anthem and a young boy led the Pledge of Allegiance.
The announcer presented Smith’s father. Then came an introduction: “Col. Smith’s partner, Miss Tracy Hepner.”
The audience burst into applause.
“This part is a little fuzzy for me, because I have to confess, I got choked up,” said Sue Fulton, an Army veteran and friend of the couple who attended the event. “People have been working toward this moment for decades.”
Hepner and Smith got married last year in Washington, D.C. They dated for nine years before that. Before don’t ask, don’t tell was repealed, they could not present themselves as a couple at military functions.
Smith is not active in gay and lesbian rights, but her wife is, Fulton said. As the Pentagon conducted a review of the policy, officials couldn’t speak to gay service members about their experiences without outing them. So they asked their partners and spouses instead. Hepner was one.
The ceremony was like any other for an officer achieving a new rank, Fulton told the Los Angeles Times on Saturday. Supervisors focused on Smith’s 26-year career, which has spanned assignments in Afghanistan and Costa Rica. Lt. Gen. Jack C. Stulz echoed that, describing Smith as a “quiet professional” who could handle tough jobs competently and quickly.
Hepner and Smith could not be reached for comment. In an interview with Stars and Stripes, Smith said she understood the social significance of her promotion, even though she viewed that as secondary.
“All of those facts are irrelevant,” Smith told Stars and Stripes. “I don’t think I need to be focused on that. What is relevant is upholding Army values and the responsibility this carries.”
During promotion ceremonies, or pinnings, the honoree chooses who will attach new insignias to the Army uniform’s epaulets.
Smith’s father pinned one shoulder. Hepner pinned the other.
Then, her father and Hepner unfurled Smith’s new general flag — red with one white star — that will fly wherever she is working.
In a speech after the pinning, Smith spoke of “standing on the shoulders of giants” during her life, including her parents and her high school mentors.
She didn’t have to mention her wife. The audience knew they were there together.