Tammy Smith: First Openly Gay U.S. General
LYNN NEARY, HOST:
Last Friday at the Women's Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, Army Colonel Tammy Smith was promoted to brigadier general. In keeping with what is often a tradition in military promotion ceremonies, Tammy Smith's wife, Tracey Hepner, pinned the general star on her uniform. And that represented a major break with tradition because Ms. Smith is now the first openly gay general in the United States military.
She joins us from the Pentagon in just a moment. But first, we want to invite other members of the military to call in. If you are a gay or lesbian member of the military and have come out since the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," please give us a call and tell us your story at 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. And now I want to welcome Brigadier General Tammy Smith to our program. Congratulations. So good to have you with us.
BRIGADIER GENERAL TAMMY SMITH: (Technical difficulty)
NEARY: I'm sorry. I'm having a little trouble hearing you.
SMITH: Hey, I just - thank you for the invitation. I appreciate it.
NEARY: Oh, great. Now we can hear you. So glad.
NEARY: Now before we talk about your promotion, I'd love to hear more about you and learn more about your career in the military. When did you join? What are some of the things that you've done? Tell us something about yourself.
SMITH: Well, I have been in the military for 26 years. I'm a - I graduated from the University of Oregon from the Reserve Officer Training Corps program, ROTC, and I went into the Army in the active component. I started out in Panama, which was a fantastic first assignment for a new lieutenant, and I was on active duty for about eight years in that time. I did some fun things. I was assigned to training units, did basic combat training, was at the joint readiness training center, learned to jump out of airplanes, was a jump master, did a few things like that. But in 1993, I went ahead and I transitioned out and I became a member of the reserve component.
NEARY: Now, I understand you served in Afghanistan. Is that right?
SMITH: That's correct. I served in Afghanistan recently. I came back in October of 2011.
NEARY: And what - in what capacity did you serve in Afghanistan?
SMITH: I went to Afghanistan as an individual. I didn't deploy with a unit. I was a staff member on the staff of the United States Forces Afghanistan staff, USFOR-A, and I was in Bagram, Afghanistan. And in that capacity, I was the chief of Army Reserve Affairs for the USFOR-A staff.
NEARY: Now tell us about the ceremony on Friday. What did that mean to you? It must've been...
SMITH: It was tremendous. It was absolutely just tremendous. First, I had friends and family from all over who came to witness the promotion. Everybody has been just so excited about the new responsibilities that I'm going to have as a general officer. I was very pleased that Tracey's family was also able to make it in, and it was - General Stultz's remarks, he made me cry. It was just a fantastic promotion ceremony, one that I will always remember.
NEARY: And what did it mean to you that Tracey was able to be there, was able to pin the general star on your uniform, that this - what did that mean to you because I can imagine you joining 26 years ago. You couldn't even think about becoming a general 26 years ago.
SMITH: Oh, no. No. You never think about that. It's - but what it meant to me was it was just absolutely fantastic. It's - part of our Army culture is just the importance of military family. And the fact that I was able to have my military family in the front row, there with me, supporting me in the role, following the tradition of participating with my dad promoting me was - it was just absolutely fantastic. I felt full, authentic and complete performing that ceremony with my family.
NEARY: We're talking to Brigadier General Tammy Smith. She is the first openly gay general in the United States military. If you have any questions, or if you yourself were in the military and have come out since the end of "don't ask, don't tell," give us a call. We're at 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK.
SMITH: Now, I know that about a year ago, you were quote in anonymously in Stars and Stripes about the possibility of a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" - anonymous at that time, because you had to be.
NEARY: And according to the paper that at that time, you said you didn't have plans to come out, even if with - when "don't ask, don't tell" would come to an end. What changed your mind?
SMITH: Well, it depends on the definition of coming out. Because on September 20th, when the official repeal came out, it's not like I went around and told anybody. I just felt a sense of relief. I think what made it different on the promotion was now that repeal had taken place, is that Tracey is a member of my family. And I don't really think of it as I came out, so much as her participation gave people a view into my authentic life, to our authentic life. So it doesn't even feel so much as I came out, though I've seen a couple of headlines in the paper that apparently I did. But it was more about the recognition of family, and the fact that Tracey is indeed my family.
NEARY: Yeah. And I also read that, you know, before you were able to be openly gay in the military that, you know, a lot of things had to - everything you did or thought about had to sort of be planned, in a way. You know, you had a - can you explain that to me?
SMITH: Absolutely. It's - what you learned is you learn to lead a compartmentalized life. You had your work life, which was so important, the hours that you put in, the dedication it takes to be a member of the military. And I tell you, people who are called to service, I mean, they want to serve. And that was one compartment.
The other compartment was my personal life and the support that I got from Tracey as a member of my family. And - but I kept those two separate, and I didn't cross them. So Tracey did not necessarily attend events with me. When I was promoted to colonel, we went out with my family in Oregon, and she attended the small ceremony there and participated in that. But it was a matter of keeping your life just completely compartmentalized, because anyone anywhere could say something that could lead to your discharge.
NEARY: Yeah. We have an email here that I think you might like. It's from Mike in Jacksonville. And he says: I don't understand why stuff like this makes news. It should be just another soldier in green making a deserved rank. Congratulations, general. And I have a sense that's how you want it to be viewed.
SMITH: That is how I want it to be viewed, and I appreciate that note. And I would have to say, too, that just immediately after this started hitting the news cycle, is that I've heard from people from my past and from all over, almost my entire commission and class from 1986. Go, Ducks. But what I have noticed about the note is that though the news has been about that I presented my partner at the ceremony, and so I, in a sense, came out, what the notes say is it's so cool that you're brigadier general. And wow, your picture looks just like you look when we knew each other in college, and that's great, since I'll be turning 50 soon. And so the response has been about just what a big deal it is to be promoted to general officer. And that's where Tracey and I want the story to be.
NEARY: Well, you know, I think that is cool. I think it is really cool that you're a brigadier general.
NEARY: And that's what I was trying to ask you before when I said, what does it mean to you in the sense that when you went into the military - not only just because you were just entering a course, you don't think I'm going to become a brigadier general. You - as a gay woman, you couldn't. It was not something you could even aspire to. Like, what were your expectations when you went in? And how does that compare to how much you've been able to exceed those expectations?
SMITH: Well - and you characterized that as a gay woman, but I would have to say more just as a woman in the military, that are there the challenges...
NEARY: Hmm. Good point.
SMITH: ...those go with just being a woman in the military. And so you - what you aspire to as a military officer is simply to do your best. And you want to be a good leader, and you want to take care of your soldiers, and you always want to do a good job. And when those things happen quite often, then the Army or the military will recognize you with a promotion. So I would have to say that simply being a woman in the military is, perhaps, the most significant part of it.
And as I said in my remarks and my promotion, and there are less than 7 percent of the general officer force in the Army are women. And so I realize that I stand on the shoulders of giants.
NEARY: We're talking with Brigadier General Tammy Smith. We're going to take a call from Tony, who is in Wichita, Kansas. Hi, Tony.
TONY: Yes, hello. First, congratulations on your promotion, general. I guess two - a comment and a question. One question is: Is your partner, does she receives now the military benefits of being your wife? The reason why I'm asking, my partner is the Marine Corps, and if - and has come out since "don't ask, don't tell" has been repealed. But I do know that the Marine Corps does not honor gay marriages. So, you know, apparently, if we were to get married, we would not - I would not receive any military benefits. Just wondering there - and if there is anything going to be done about that?
SMITH: Just the way that the current law is written, that is correct, that my marriage, your marriage is not recognized, and that's the point of law. And as a military officer, I certainly respect that that is currently the law. In terms of should anything be done with that, you know, I just would ask you to search for the words that the secretary of defense has said on this topic. The military, in my current - in the last couple of days and leading into this, they have been absolutely so supportive of me and of Tracey. The entire experience has been absolutely positive. So while I can't comment on what may lie in the future, all I know is that the current environment since repeal has been extremely supportive in my case.
NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, John. And I just want to remind our listeners that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. You know, tell me about your new job. What will you be doing?
SMITH: Well, while I'm a Reserve general officer, the current job that I have is on active duty. It's a full-time job, and I'm the director for Army Reserve Human Capital. And in that capacity, what I do is I link strategic policy - such as what's developed at the Pentagon - and I link that to operational execution in the Army Reserve Command. And what I try to do is to make sure that our personnel statistics and our personnel are ready to support the Army and the nation for all of - anything that they're called upon to do.
NEARY: All right. Let's take another call. We're going to go to John, who is calling from Tulsa, Oklahoma. And I think I might have just lost John.
NEARY: Are you there, John? I'm afraid I did. Well, I wanted to ask you, you are - I know that you shy away from this, but you have to know that you are a role model as a woman, as you said, and also, again, as a gay woman. I mean, that is - it has to be a part of your identity, I would think. And I think that's something that many younger people in the military would look up to you for. Do you accept that? I mean, do you accept that role, or not?
SMITH: Well, I am coming to accept that. But when I think about being a role model, that - what I think about is that I know that people will look up to me for different reasons as a general officer. So everybody filters. They're looking up through their own life experiences. So there will be some folks who will look up to me for being gay - and not so much because I'm gay, because that's not really significant, so much as that I upheld my personal integrity in a way that is comfortable for me. And some people will look up to me because I'm senior parachutist, and they think that's cool. Some people will look up to me because I've been to Afghanistan. Some people will look up to me because of my assignment history or some other types of things. So I accept that this is, perhaps, one of the things that will people filter through their own experiences and think of me as a role model for.
NEARY: All right. Let's see if we can get some more calls, and I think John is back, I hope. John, are you there?
JOHN: Yes, ma'am. I am.
NEARY: Sorry that I disconnected you before. Go ahead.
JOHN: No - well, first, general, I am ecstatic that you are a general, and you being gay has nothing to do with you being general. I'm very proud of you. I served nine years, seven months in the closet, my last five-an- a-half years in special operations. I know you can imagine living in that environment in the closet, and I can't tell you how proud and happy I am for you.
SMITH: Well, thank you.
NEARY: Well, thanks so much for your call. Go ahead.
SMITH: And thank you for your service. And I know that leading up to repeal, that that particular caller, too, had to live the compartmental life. And you - everybody makes their personal choice about their own service and their own comfort level. And I thank you for your service at that time that you were able to serve.
NEARY: Thanks so much for your call, John.
NEARY: I'm trying to get one more call in here, if we can. We're going to go to Kit. She's in Boone, North Carolina. Hi, Kit. Kit, are you there?
NEARY: Hi. Go ahead.
KIT: I just wanted to say congratulations. My late Aunt Alberta Murphy was a decorated war hero during World War II. And she was recruited into Naval Intelligence and live a closeted life, in fact, married a gay man when she was in intelligence so they could maintain their cover. And she's been dead for over 10 years now, but I know that she just - she worked so hard and she did such a good job and she was very devoted to it, and yet she still had to hide out. So I'm just - I think this is a momentous occasion.
NEARY: Kit, I'm just curious. Did the family know that she was gay, but she never could tell the military that? Or...
KIT: Oh, yeah. Yeah, she knew she was gay when she was eight years old. But she just, you know, when she was recruited to come into intelligence with the Navy, it was a very, very clear that that had to stay - that had to completely stay a secret.
NEARY: And that was the whole time, throughout her whole career?
KIT: Uh-huh. When she was - yeah, when she was Navy Intelligence during World War II. So it's just - this is remarkable.
NEARY: All right. Well, thanks so much for your call. That - I think, general, that really does give us a sense of how much things have changed.
SMITH: Indeed, that they have changed so much. And it's unfortunate, of course, as times change, that she had to hide her service and do the marriage in the way that she did. But I'm just so thrilled that I'm able, at this point, to present Tracey as my family. We're, indeed, a military family...
SMITH: ...and our job's to support soldiers.
NEARY: Congratulations. Brigadier General Tammy Smith joined us from the Pentagon - as of Friday, our nation's first openly gay general. Tomorrow, he wasn't named anyone's running mate, but Political Junkie Ken Rudin joins us, anyway. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary, in Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.