Former Rep. Joe Sestak, a retired Navy admiral who was the highest-ranking officer ever elected to Congress, said such inequities have implications for national security. Many financial protections and support services are offered to military families not just out of gratitude, but so service members can focus on their jobs during dangerous deployments, Sestak said.
“When you step back and all of a sudden realize that a law would actually prevent, today, the spouse of somebody in our military (being) notified first that that soldier or that sailor has been harmed or killed … you sit back there and say, `What's going on?“' he said.
Dice Johnson and her wife had been together six years when they decided to get married. They waited until the military lifted the “don't ask, don't tell” policy and then exchanged vows last year on Valentine's Day in Washington, D.C. Soon after, Johnson volunteered for a second tour of duty, despite pleas from her wife and mother.
“There are a handful of things you can't tell your heart not to do. One is to serve your country, and the other is not to love who you love,” Dice Johnson said.
Johnson had been in Afghanistan only a few weeks when a man wearing a vest packed with explosives drove a motorcycle into a group of soldiers on patrol in a market area in the city of Khost. Johnson was killed, along with two other members of the 514th Military Police Company, a translator, six Afghan police officers and six civilians.
When Dice Johnson learned that uniformed officers were at the North Carolina home of her mother-in-law and father-in-law, she grabbed her marriage certificate and raced over there. Johnson had requested that her wife be the first to hear in the event of her death, she said.
“I wanted to make sure they saw my face, even if they weren't going to notify me,” she said. The notification officer assured her he had planned to visit her, too.
Johnson's mother, Sandra Johnson, knew how happy her daughter was to be married to Dice Johnson, and the fact that her daughter-in-law was not recognized as such outraged her. As primary next-of-kin, she made sure Dice Johnson was recognized as her daughter's wife, including insisting that she be allowed to accompany a military escort with her daughter's body.
“They hemmed and hawed, hemmed and hawed, and I said, `You will accept Tracy going up there because she will be our liaison. She will bring our daughter home, and she will bring her wife home,' “ Johnson said.
One of Dice Johnson's duties as the escort was to take possession of her wife's property, including a velvet bag containing the wedding ring and St. Michael's medallion Johnson was wearing when she was killed. She was instructed to pass them on to her mother-in-law's casualty assistance officer. The night before she did, she slept with the jewelry, unsure if she would see the possessions again. The officer delivered them to Sandra Johnson, who immediately gave them back to her daughter-in-law.
“Every little step was a shaky step,” said Dice Johnson. “You are definitely on uncertain ground.”
Dice Johnson does not fault the Army. From the casualty officer to National Guard commanders, everyone did “the best they could,” she said. In some instances, she was even surprised at her support. The condolence letter she received from President Barack Obama acknowledged Johnson as her wife.
If the DOMA is overturned before the one-year anniversary of the attack, Dice Johnson may become eligible for monthly survivor benefits, guaranteed health insurance and other financial compensation.
“My biggest thing, honestly, is to get her death certificate changed to married,” she said. “That will be my victory.”