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Fort Bliss couple at the heart of changing military

Updated: Wednesday, September 18 2013, 09:16 PM MDT
Fort Bliss couple at the heart of changing military story image

By: Genevieve Curtis

FORT BLISS, Texas: Earlier this month, the military began allowing same-sex couples to start enrolling for spousal benefits and started recognizing their unions.

In the last two years, the military has seen the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," or DADT, as well as major changes to the Defense of Marriage Act and the decision to officially allow women to serve in combat roles.

At the heart of the changes are those soldiers impacted by the changing polices. One Fort Bliss couple is at the heart of the evolving times.

Lisa and Amber Latham met while stationed at Fort Bliss in 2011. Throughout the course of their relationship, they've experienced the roller coaster of changes in the Army.

They first started dating living under the policy of "don't ask, don't tell" and had to date in secret.

"We want to go to the movies together. We have to watch who is around. 'Oh, were just here as friends,' and that kind of thing," said Lisa Latham.

"All you want to do when you get with someone you are happy with is show everyone how happy you are," said Amber Latham.

The Lathams said they received some support and coworkers would tell them to be cautious. They would warn the couple to "be careful" or "don't get caught."

"We both joined knowing that was the whole concept and that was the rules in play but that doesn't make it any easier," said Amber Latham.

"You're trying to fight for freedoms and you don't really have those freedoms yourself, so it's pretty difficult," said Lisa Latham

After DADT was repealed, they could be open about their relationship, but not that open.

The Lathams recall several times when they were pulled into their commander's office because people complained that the couple made them feel uncomfortable. While dressed in uniforms, soldiers cannot make public displays of affection but while dressed in civilian clothes, the two still faced obstacles.

"If we were in civilian clothes and we wanted to hold hands some people felt uncomfortable about it and they'd go tell our commander, 'Hey, I feel really uncomfortable that they're holding hands,'" said Lisa Latham.

The couple was told they couldn't have lunch together and just two weeks before they got married, they were told they could not communicate with each other.

"For a few months we kept getting called into the office: 'Oh, somebody got really offended that you guys were talking about having a family,'" said Lisa Latham.

Amber Latham said while at the dentist someone asked her if she planned to have children and how they plan to do it. She explained that they plan to use a sperm donor and Lisa would be the one to carry the child. The Lathams said evidently that conversation offended someone, because they complained to the commander.

In September 2012, the couple married in New York. Lisa Latham legally changed her last name to Amber Latham's last name. But their union was still not recognized by the Army.

The couple wanted to sign up to go on a married couple's retreat, where they could go skiing and take marriage classes before deployment. But they were denied

"You're married but the Army doesn't recognize you're married," said Lisa Latham.

So the couple asked to go on the singles retreat, they were also denied. They said they were told, "You can't go on the singles retreat because you're not really single, you're married."

When it came time for the military ball, Lisa said she had to double check if it was OK for her to bring her wife to the ball.

"Can I bring my wife as my date? That sounds even weird to have to ask that," said Lisa Latham.

A few months after exchanging rings, the couple was getting ready to deploy to Afghanistan.

"We weren't allowed to be each other's next of kin," said Lisa Latham.

The couples said they made sure to put each other in their wills in case anything happened to them.
The two trained combat medics deployed to Afghanistan a few months after getting married, knowing full well the Army did not recognize their union and therefore they would likely not receive the same type of support.

"It was always a constant worry, If something happened to either of us, would we be able to take care of the other?" said Amber Latham.

The couples was separated in Afghanistan by about three hours, but that may as well have been 30. The safety of their wife was always on their mind

"Deployment wasn't that bad but both of us being deployed not just worrying about ourselves but worrying about each other," said Amber Latham.

"I wasn't as worried about myself. I was more worried about her. That was always the constant thing I was worried about," said Lisa Latham.

There was several nerve-wracking days for the couple.

One day Lisa got word that someone in Amber's company had been killed. Communication at their posts went into blackout mode.

"Honestly, I thought she had died. She was out on a mission that day, it was her battalion, her company," said Lisa Latham. "I started freaking out, trying to get a hold of her."

Thankfully, when Lisa called, Amber answered.

While they were overseas, the couple re-enlisted together in the Army for four more years. The couple Lisa Latham, a staff sergeant, was there to "pin" Amber Latham at her promotion to sergeant ceremony.

During their tour, they anxiously awaited to hear how the U.S. Supreme Court would rule on DOMA. They were in Afghanistan when they got the news that DOMA had been all but dismantled.

"Our relationship was always validated to us, but now it means something to the military. We used to joke around, 'Now I'm your real wife and not your fake wife,'" said Amber Latham.

Now, the couple is beginning the process of being fully recognized as a married couple in the military.

"They are changing with the times, the whole country is changing, I think it's good for the military to keep up with the times," said Amber Latham

"A couple years ago, I didn't think any of this; I didn't think they were going to repeal DOMA. I didn't think they were going to repeal 'don't ask, don't tell.' I can't imagine, in 10 years, some of the differences they might have," said Lisa Latham.

The couple said having their union recognized encouraged them to stay in the Army because before the DOMA ruling, there was a chance they could have been separated by re-assignments or post transfers.

"That was kind of an issue. We didn't know if we wanted to stay in the military because we didn't want to get separated. Both of us would rather get out of the Army than be separated," said Lisa Latham.

The two explained that throughout their relationship more people had a problem with their rank difference rather than the fact they were a lesbian couple.

Since the repeal of DOMA, the Lathams said they've heard some negative comments about the Army's new stance.

They said some soldiers are complaining that same sex couples that don't live in a state that recognizes gay marriage will get two weeks of free leave to go get married in a state that does recognize it. They've also heard comments from soldiers who think people will just get married now for the benefits.

The Lathams said they try to let that stuff roll off their shoulders and draw strength from their union.

An Army newspaper did a story on the couple when they re-enlisted. The couple will head next to Fort Collins in Colorado because the state allows for second parent adoptions and the Lathams want to start a family. Some of the responses to the article were cruel.

"There were so many negative comments like, 'Oh, that poor child,'" said Amber Latham.
"It was just really sad to read, really, some hurtful things that people write," said Lisa Latham.

Earlier this year the military decided it would start allowing women to serve in combat roles. As combat medics, Amber and Lisa said, they're pretty much on the front lines anyway.

"There really aren't front lines in this war," said Lisa Latham. "You have people driving trucks, they can still get hit with an IED."

Women will now have the opportunity to try for infantry positions.

"As long as they don't change the standards for male and female, as long as they can pass the same tests I don't see an issue with it," said Lisa Latham

"We know a couple females that are in our company that could pass it, they show up the guys nine times out of 10," said Amber Latham.

A few days ago, Lisa returned home from Afghanistan and for the first time, into the arms of her wife. But even that joyous moment caused her to pause for a moment.

"We are not allowed to show any affection in uniform, but when normal couples come home they are allowed to kiss their spouses, kiss their children. I was concerned if it was OK to kiss my spouse, if I was going to get in trouble for that. It's difficult sometimes, you're kind of concerned about what you can and can't do," said Lisa Latham.

The couple is now in the process of enrolling in the married Army couple program and are looking forward to their future and starting a family.

After fighting for freedoms at home and abroad, the two feel they can now begin to enjoy the same liberties they've helped to protect.

Fort Bliss couple at the heart of changing military
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