The First Lady’s Guest at the State of the Union

Recounts Career Spanning DADT Era

By David Small, Associate Editor

Colonel Wallace and Kathy Knopf

In her service dress garnished with ribbons from multiple deployments to the Middle East, Air Force Col Ginger L. Wallace sat in the First Lady’s box with Michelle Obama for the President’s State of the Union address on Jan. 24, 2012. The White House invited her to represent the LGB community’s ability to now serve openly in the armed forces.

“I was extremely honored and humbled to represent gays and lesbians serving today, all those who have served, and all those who will serve in the future,” said Colonel Wallace. “Sitting there, I was very much aware that my partner and I were just a symbol. We also represented all the organizations that fought so hard to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), as well as families and partners of those serving.”

Wallace and her partner of ten years, Kathy Knopf, were personal guests of the First Lady.

“What do you say to a man whose leadership led to this drastic improvement of the quality of life for so many? I was a little awe-struck,” she said, telling President Obama after his speech, “Mr. President, on behalf of all the men and women who serve, thank you for your leadership in ending ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.’”

Then, in a receiving line, thanking the First Lady, Mrs. Obama said to her, “We’re not finished yet! There’s more to do.”

“It’s been so exciting to see everything that’s happening post-repeal,” Colonel Wallace said. “I hope people are standing a little taller now.”

Wallace, a 1990 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, is an intelligence officer currently training in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Hands program in Washington, D.C. She is preparing for another deployment this summer, just as President Obama announced his intentions to wind down operations in the region by the end of 2013. The Hands program grows experts on the region, teaches them to speak Dari, expands their knowledge with counter-insurgency operations, and then rotates people in and out of the theater to build a deeper cadre of experience in the region.

Wallace’s 22 years of service, spanning the entire DADT era, have been a far cry from her Southern Baptist beginnings in Cadiz, Ky., a town with a population of less than three thousand.

“It’s really hard to get past the environment you were raised in and what you were told being gay or lesbian meant,” she said. “I heard the term ‘burn in hell’ from the pulpit more than once and fought my sexuality until I was about 25 years old.”

At about the same time Colonel Wallace was coming to terms with her own sexuality, she watched Congress implement DADT from her post at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark.

“I remember being disappointed after DADT but thinking, ‘It’s a little better. As long as I don’t tell anybody, I should be ok,’” she said. “My integrity is everything to me, but I’m sure I’ve lied. It’s hard for me to say that, but I don’t know how I could answer any other way. Over time, though, I just quit answering questions.”

While out to her parents from age 26, being lesbian was not something Wallace talked about at home. However, things are easier at home now that she is with her partner.

“She’s good for me and my family sees that,” said Colonel Wallace, who met Knopf, a government contractor, at Kramerbooks in D.C., just after 9/11.

Colonel Wallace and Kathy Knopf

Like other military couples, the two have endured long separations. Knopf has retained her job in D.C. while Wallace has been stationed in Florida, Texas, England, and deployments to Iraq and Qatar.
Reflecting on Knopf’s sacrifices as a military spouse, Wallace said, “She’s unpacked a lot of boxes by herself; we’ve cancelled trips. But she keeps plugging along, rarely complaining. All the times I was deployed, she took care of everything without the support in place that other spouses had. She turned every house we’ve had into a home.”

Colonel Wallace continued, “I think Kathy and I work because our relationship is based on love, trust and mutual respect. We have a partnership in every sense of the word. While we have to work at it and face challenges like any other couple, it doesn’t seem like a chore. We make each other laugh. While neither of us is perfect, together, we’re a little bit closer. Her strengths are my weaknesses and vice versa. Bottom line, we have fun and make each other better… anyone (gay or straight) who finds that should hang on to it and never let it go.”

During her two deployments, Wallace had concerns about being separated, yet living under DADT with a spouse unrecognized by the military. Should something have happened to Knopf or her elderly parents, the emergency procedures through the Red Cross that work in a heartbeat for heterosexual couples may not have been an option for them.

“I don’t know if I’d have made it home or not,” said Colonel Wallace. “I’ve never had peace of mind that should something happen to me, she would be taken care of.”

To help combat that concern, she wrote a sealed letter with specific instructions upon her death. One example was for the flag to be presented to Knopf at a military funeral. “I wanted to make sure the Air Force treated her like my spouse even though she isn’t. That really bothered me – really.”

Their most difficult separation hardship was when Wallace commanded the 488th Intelligence Squadron for two years at RAF Mildenhall, U.K.

“We considered it, but it was too difficult to bring Kathy there,” said Colonel Wallace. “She would have had to get multiple short-term tourist visas or find work on the economy there. We wouldn’t have been able to live together in the commander’s house on base. If she was on a tourist visa, she would have had to leave multiple times a year.”

She also spoke about the frustration that Knopf wouldn’t receive Wallace’s retirement or survivor benefits, as well as maintaining two households on the single-rate housing allowance.

“None of that is in place for her,” said Colonel Wallace.

The separation and secrecy of their relationship took a toll on Wallace as she threw all of her energy into commanding her squadron.

“When you’re in a position of leadership, you strive for transparency. You want to make sure people know exactly where you’re coming from, and that you’re communicating well,” she said. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but I look back and think DADT affected my abilities. I was an okay squadron commander, but I should’ve been better. I allowed the restraints on my personal life to affect my ability to communicate effectively. Nobody knew what I was experiencing. I dealt with many issues and problems that took so much energy. It was physically and emotionally draining to live under DADT, especially as a commander.”

One trying incident for Wallace was when a young Airman initiated separation under DADT, admitting her homosexuality. Wallace’s first impression was to dismiss it, but the Airman wanted to leave, so she made the process as expeditious as possible. Upon soliciting the Judge Advocate General’s office, the JAG attempted to stall the process stating, “she could be lying.”

“That made me really angry! They weren’t going to turn my squadron into a three-ring circus. I told them this better be the fastest separation they had ever processed,” Colonel Wallace said, thinking she probably outed herself with such anger. “That was a bad day. But I was able to have a good conversation with the Airman and felt fortunate I could identify with what she was going through.”

All the time Wallace struggled with her duality, Knopf also worried about her partner’s career. “She was worried that she would be the reason my career would end. It put so much stress on her. Toward the end of DADT, I became braver at times, but she prevented me from making any mistakes. She didn’t want to be the reason my career ended,” Colonel Wallace said.

Now that DADT has ended, Wallace feels like a weight has been lifted, “For the first time, I can focus all my energy on my work. The black cloud that was always over my head is gone.”

Shortly after repeal, Wallace’s promotion ceremony to the rank of colonel was held in the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes. It was the first ceremony post-repeal covered by the Washington Blade featuring the spouse of a serving lesbian. The Blade had received a tip from Wallace’s brother.

“It was so awesome to recognize Kathy at the ceremony after 10 years of being together and never being able to acknowledge her sacrifices,” Colonel Wallace said. “I was so proud to be able to do that in front of family and friends.”

Even though the military bureaucracy doesn’t officially recognize their relationship, the military family now does. People have volunteered to help Knopf while Wallace deploys or to get her on base.

“I don’t have to worry about all that now,” she said. “It’s amazing how much better I feel about going this time and leaving her, knowing that there is such a larger support group available to her.

As Wallace readies herself for a year in Afghanistan, she reflects on the best piece of advice ever given to her. Her father once told her, “Always work hard, keep your heart right, and good things will happen.”


About Author

David Small

David Small is the editor-in-chief of OutServe Magazine. He is a career public affairs professional, currently serving with the Department of Defense as a civilian. He is also a Major in the Air Force Reserve, stationed in New York, N.Y. See more from this contributor.

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