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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Time now to check in with StoryCorps and the Military Voices Initiative, a project collecting stories from veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and those of their families.

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SIMON: This week, the Pentagon announced it would extend some benefits to gay and lesbian couples who serve in the military. North Carolina national guardsman Tracy Johnson is paying close attention to these changes. She's an Iraq veteran and an Army widow. She married her longtime partner, Staff Sergeant Donna Johnson, a year ago on Valentine's Day. Last October, Donna Johnson was killed by a suicide bomber while serving in Khost, Afghanistan. At StoryCorps, Tracy told her mother-in-law, Sandra Johnson, how she learned of Donna's death and what happened next.

TRACY JOHNSON: That day, I had a bad feeling. I immediately started scouring the news websites, and it said that there were three U.S. soldiers were killed in Khost, Afghanistan, and I knew. Obviously, that's where she was stationed.

SANDRA JOHNSON: So, how did you get notified?

JOHNSON: I knew that any communication about Donna was going to come to you guys because even though we were married, I wasn't considered her next of kin. So, Donna's sister called me and told me that the military people were there. So, I grabbed a copy of our marriage certificate. I went to your place, and I said, you know, I am her wife and I brought documentation. The notification, the officer looked at it, and he looks at me, and he looks at it again. He goes can I have a copy of this. And when a soldier's fallen, they usually have a military escort that brings them home. And I said can I do it, because I'm military. He goes, well, we'll see. Well, I know it wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for your assistance.

JOHNSON: I just, I did not want her coming home with a stranger. I wanted her coming home to family.

JOHNSON: I was flown up to Dover to see her brought back on American soil. And honestly, I can't tell you how great of an honor it is to escort a fallen hero home. And when that hero is your wife, it means a lot more. And I was given all her awards and all her personal documents that I had to turn over to you. And one of the hardest things for me was our wedding ring. Well, I actually slept with it that night. I put her ring on with mine because I thought it was going to be the last time I was going to get to see it.

JOHNSON: Wow. I gave you your ring back. I thought that was only natural, 'cause I don't know how the Army or any military does it. I just know what's fair is fair, you know.

JOHNSON: I'm so thankful for everything you've done. You allowed me to be named as a spouse in the obituary. Being given a flag in a private ceremony before the funeral, being given a second copy of all her awards, being allowed to sit in the front pew and pretty much being treated as family the entire time. 'Cause in reality...

JOHNSON: In reality, you married my daughter and that was it.

JOHNSON: But if anybody else were in my shoes, they could have been completely shut out and not had anything. So, I understand how blessed I am to be a part of your family.

JOHNSON: Well, I want you to know that I'm very proud of you. I consider you mine because Donna considered you hers, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

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SIMON: Sandra Johnson and her daughter-in-law, Staff Sergeant Tracy Johnson. Sergeant Johnson is believed to be the first gay spouse to lose a partner at war since the repeal of the don't ask, don't tell policies. This conversation is part of the Military Voices Initiative, and, like all StoryCorps interviews, it will be archived at the Library of Congress. To get the podcast, you can visit npr.org.

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SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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