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OutServe Magazine | October 16, 2013

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Finding Hope

Finding Hope

2nd Lt. Hope Cronin and her wife, Kathryn Trammell, work at building a life—and stability—in Japan.

By Liza Swart

A Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) is important while serving overseas because it defines an individual’s rights as a U.S. citizen while living in a host nation. It affects everything from visa duration to access to facilities on base; it also provides legal rights unique to those holding SOFA status. SOFA status is granted to legal dependents of U.S. service members serving abroad. It is one of the many benefits not granted to same-sex married couples under the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). For 2nd Lt. Hope Cronin and her wife, Kathryn Trammell, DOMA is inconvenient, but it isn’t stopping them from living together as a family.

“The politics of DOMA are definitely outside of my lane of authority,” said Cronin. “I’ll leave politics to politicians. I’m interested in taking care of my family. I don’t really care how current legislation needs to be changed to achieve that goal, so long as I can ultimately take care of my family. I think at the end of the day that’s all any service member wants. We willingly make sacrifices that your average citizen doesn’t have to make. In return, please grant me the same ability to provide for my family that’s available to every other service member.“

Cronin’s experiences in the Air Force place her within a unique but growing component of U.S. service members.  Though she spent five years under “Don’t, Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), working towards her commission, a delayed acceptance meant that she arrived at Kadena Air Base in Japan, her first assignment, one week after repeal went into effect.  Though initially hesitant to be open about her sexuality, the command climate quickly changed her mind.

“During my in-briefing,” said Cronin, “The commander addressed the audience of new Team Kadena members, stating that he wanted every one of his troops and their families to feel supported here. He went on to say that he didn’t want anyone to feel like they have to be a different person at home than when they are at work, because he needed us to be engaged one hundred percent, regardless of the job. That is how we achieve success in the massive and vital mission entrusted to us as the ‘Keystone of the Pacific’ – by bringing everything to the table.”

Cronin’s commanding officer’s words had the desired effect and led her to seek help from her command, despite DOMA’s challenges and the truly limited scope of available benefits.

“The professionalism and support shown to us since we arrived back on station blows me away and really is a testament to the tone set by leadership,” said Cronin. “Every meeting, whether with my First Sergeant, legal, personnel or any commander or NCO in between, has been positive. These individuals are helping us look at every potential solution to our many challenges. We’ve also been offered congratulations and well-wishes as a newly-married couple from friends and colleagues because they understand the commitment needed to make a military marriage work.”

“Unfortunately,” Cronin continued, “everyone’s desire to help us navigate these uncharted waters is overshadowed by the lack of information available. There is little precedence or guidance on these issues as we collectively wait for policy to catch up to reality. The reality is that there are many military families like ours who have serious concerns but can’t get the help they need, despite leadership’s desire to support them.”

Cronin at least has the stability of her job to lean on, with steady pay and all the benefits every active-duty service member enjoys.  Her wife, Kathryn Trammell, has no such solace.

“I feel as if I do not want to complain because I have been so lucky to have made it this far – I never thought the plan to get me here would work, and I certainly never thought that I would make it to Japan,” said Trammell. “While I have received the utmost respect and acceptance from Hope’s fellow officers, superiors and airmen, I have been made to feel unwelcome by a system that does not hold my marriage in the same regard as my straight counterparts.  This system has everything to do with the laws and constitution of my country, and nothing to do with the people who desire to help me.  I do not live in Japan – I am simply visiting, which is exactly what my passport reflects.”

Their current situation is merely the next chapter in a now all-too-familiar story of being the loved one of a service member constrained by DADT.

“Hope and I have been together for five years, but it has only been in the past six months that we have been able to be completely honest regarding our relationship,” said Trammell.  “When we first met during her freshman year, neither one of us could foresee that we would be married five years later.  DADT was of little consequence to me at that time, but as the years carried on, I began to realize how limited our relationship would have to be, compared to our friends’.”

“I’ll never forget the first time the awareness of our relationship’s limitations occurred to me,” remembered Trammell. “We were walking side by side into a restaurant, and I reached out to hold her hand.  She withdrew it in a manner of caution and fear.  She quickly looked around to make sure no one had seen what I had done and then told me I had to be more careful.  We were only three miles from campus, where she was a member of the AFROTC. Someone from her unit could be getting dinner at the same restaurant and report her. Shortly thereafter, I began to notice that she refused to take pictures with me, and that wherever we went, we could not—under any circumstance—look like a couple.  Every once in a while, I would slip up and call her “Baby” in public, but I learned very quickly to call her by name when we were out. The degree to which DADT invaded our lives and relationship only grew over the years.”

Even though Cronin and Trammell were legally married in February in Washington, D.C., the story seems to remain the same.  Due to the lack of legal recognition, their marriage is made to seem nonexistent in Japan.

“Two weeks ago, we were invited by Hope’s friends, other officers at Kadena, to go see a movie at Camp Foster,” said Trammell.  “When we made our way up to the guards, they made us turn around, get out of our car, and wait in line to get a base pass because my Kadena pass would not suffice.  It seemed fair enough.  We should have never assumed that my base pass to Kadena was universal to Camp Foster.  So we parked our car and went to stand in line at the guarded gate.  As I stood there, I began to notice that the people who were standing in line were clearly men in the military who were trying to get their dates on base.  I looked down at my wedding band and began to twist it around and around on my finger.  The back of my neck became warm with embarrassment and resentment.  I, my position in this line, had been reduced to something I was not.  I was married to an officer in the Air Force, not someone’s date for the night, and I did not deserve to be in this line.  I have made the same sacrifices as other military spouses, and I support my military spouse just like every other spouse on the island.  It took us thirty minutes to get a base ID for Camp Foster, and by the time we made it to our seats, 45 minutes of the movie had passed.”

Trammell worked as a teacher in the United States, and now spends her days searching online for jobs that could offer the SOFA status she so desperately needs.  She hitches a ride with her wife when something promising comes up, because she cannot drive in Japan without SOFA recognition.

“Besides job fairs,” said Trammell, “I also went to a DoD school to inquire about volunteer opportunities.  Sadly, I was told that I would have to keep my ‘situation’ between me and the principals of the school, a lecture that demeaned my professionalism to the core.  We have often heard the well-intentioned words, ‘We want to help you,’ but the truth is, no one knows how.  Everyone just assumes that because DADT was repealed, I am afforded the same rights as heterosexual spouses, but I am not.  I have three months to either obtain a work visa from someone willing to sponsor me or SOFA status through obtaining a government job, or I will have to leave the country.  We remain optimistic, however, and try to push open the doors that threaten to close in our faces, though sometimes it feels like a lost battle.”

Cronin echoed her wife’s determination. “There is no justifiable reason for me to look at my wife and tell her we need to spend the next two years apart on opposite sides of the world when she knows all of my peers are here with their families. It’s hard to make a relationship work under those parameters. We’d rather endure the financial and administrative challenges of her being here non-sponsored. Until something changes, we will endure. We’ll explore every option and opportunity we can find in order to stay here together.”