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Colonel ‘Proud, Humbled’ to Represent Gay, Lesbian Troops

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Air Force Col. Ginger Wallace, an intelligence officer, had a choice seat for President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech yesterday -- she listened to it live, as a guest of First Lady Michelle Obama.

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Kathy Knopf, left, pins colonel's wings on her partner, Air force Col. Ginger Wallace, during Wallace's December 2011 promotion ceremony in the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes. Courtesy photo
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Wallace was there at the White House's invitation to represent gay and lesbian service members and veterans. The White House contacted her through Servicemembers United, which calls itself America's gay military organization. Wallace has been a member for about a year and a half, she said.

She got the invitation Jan. 20, and "stressed out all weekend," she said.

The colonel first made news in December, when her partner of 10 years, Kathy Knopf, attended her promotion ceremony as her significant other and pinned on Wallace's new rank. Wallace that said as far as she knows, that was the first time a same-sex partner had taken such a role in a promotion ceremony following repeal of the law that had banned gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the military.

Knopf also was at Wallace's side at the White House yesterday before the president's speech at the House of Representatives chamber, Wallace said. She added the event left her feeling "extremely proud, and so honored and humbled to represent the thousands of gays and lesbians that serve in the military."

That includes not only those serving now, she added, but also those who didn't get to serve out full careers under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," as well as those who will serve in the future, "because there will be many more that follow."

Wallace said she hopes her attendance at the State of the Union speech offers a teachable moment for parents of young people who are being bullied about their sexuality, calling the pressure on those young men and women "tragic."

"And I hope that last night provides an opportunity for parents to highlight to their children that it really does get better, and it is better," she added. "We have a ways to go; we're not there, but it is better. And every day it's going to get a little bit better. We just have to be patient."

Wallace said she was glad to have the chance to thank the first lady for the work she and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, do in support of military families.

"And then to get to thank the president for his leadership in the repeal of ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell' ... was pretty amazing," the colonel said.

Wallace said before 2010, she hadn't expected to see the law repealed during her career.

"I thought, the economy the way it is, the president's got a lot going on, Congress has a lot going on, there are other issues that need to be dealt with," she said. "That's hard to say, considering how hard it was to live under ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' but it was true. For the greater good of the country, their focus needed to be on, ‘Let's get this economy moving again.'"

From 2008 to 2010, Wallace said, she wasn't sure repeal would happen, but then momentum started to build.

"Then there were those dark days in December [2010]," she said, when repeal couldn't get through the Senate, and the provision was stripped out of the National Defense Authorization Act. "I thought, ‘Now I won't see it until I retire.'"

Before repeal, Wallace said, she always felt her career as an intelligence officer could be over if her sexual orientation became known.

"I could never talk about Kathy. I didn't talk about Kathy," she said. "She was always on my security clearance, but not who she really was."

Security clearance requirements dictate that service members report "everything you've ever done," she noted. "You have to be 100 percent honest and truthful -- you have to be, in order to retain the clearances that we have. That was an added concern. I didn't ever lie. I just wasn't forthcoming with everything."

When the legislation did pass and repeal was implemented, the colonel said, the freedom to serve openly brought both relief and challenges -- and her promotion ceremony was an example of both.

"At one point, it was very stressful," she said. "I'm from a real small town in Kentucky, and I knew that this was the start of me coming out of the closet, basically."

Wallace said she was concerned about the effect her openness might have on her parents, public educators who are "very well known" in their community.

"I was a little bit worried about how they would be treated, but Kathy and I talked about it," she said. "I finally said to her, ‘Look, we're going to do this the right way.'"

Not including Kathy in her promotion ceremony, Wallace said, would have implied there was "something wrong" with their relationship.

"And there's absolutely nothing wrong," she added. "She sat exactly where any other spouse or significant other would sit -- I had to move my dad. ... I said, ‘Dad, that's not your seat, you need to move down one. That's where Kathy sits.'"

Military and civilian friends and family who have supported the couple also attended the ceremony, she said.

"It was awesome. And really, to be able to thank her for what she's been through. ... She had to become accustomed to what it meant to be partnered with someone who [had] to live under those circumstances [the law imposed]," Wallace said. "And she's unpacked boxes by herself, just like everybody else.

"She's made houses into homes," Wallace added, "just like everybody else. And to be able to acknowledge that, and her sacrifice, was huge."

Wallace was 10 years into her Air Force career when she met Knopf, and the military "was my life," she said. She was used to gays and lesbians being barred from serving openly, she added, but Knopf wasn't.

The biggest difference repeal has made for her, the colonel added, is the freedom to acknowledge how important her partner is in her life.

"The bottom line is, our families - and I think everyone would agree -- sacrifice much more than we do," the colonel said. "When we go away, our lives simplify so much. Theirs become so much more complicated."

Wallace now is taking part in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Hands program, known in defense circles as "Af-Pak Hands." She is in a year of language and cultural training "trying to learn Dari," she said, and will start a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan this spring. She will then return to the United States and work for a year in a regionally focused job.

The Af-Pak Hands program offers U.S. service members the information and knowledge they need to advise the Afghan people as they rebuild their country after decades of war, the colonel said.

"It's the [U.S.] military's attempt to build a cadre of individuals that are experts in that region," she said, "and can go over and ... assist the Afghan government and be effective, as [Afghans] tackle the challenges that they face."

Wallace said she's very excited to be part of the program, which is aimed at "one of the biggest challenges we face.".

"As hard as it will be to leave Kathy, I have not been to Afghanistan yet," Wallace said. "I checked the Iraq box, ... but I'm really looking forward to [Afghanistan]. I think it's a critical, critical region for our national security. We've got to figure it out, and we've got to get it right."

Wallace's partner is a civilian intelligence analyst whose father is a retired Air Force colonel.

In a telephone interview, Knopf said she felt a constant "low level of anxiety that somehow, I could inadvertently cost Ginger her career" before repeal of the law. She avoided official events and effectively remained in the background of Wallace's life, she said.

"She obviously couldn't introduce me as her partner, so when we did meet people, I was her ‘friend,'" Knopf said. "We had to do it, and I was fine with that, but it was always just kind of strange."

When the repeal took effect in September, the couple woke up the next morning and felt "just a sense of relief," she said.

Now, "she can just introduce me as, ‘This is my partner, Kathy,'" Knopf said.

Knopf said she was a little anxious before Wallace's promotion. "She was going to publicly thank me as her partner in front of a roomful of military personnel," she explained.

"It was wonderful," she added. "Everybody was so nice. ... [They] made a special point to look at me and say, ‘It was wonderful to meet you,' and ‘This is great,' and ‘We're very happy for you and Ginger.'"

Since repeal, "it's just been super," Knopf said.

"I'm so happy for her, because she just loves the Air Force," she said. "She's given them 150 percent for 20 years, and she does it cheerfully. And so to see that happen, and it was in time for her promotion, ... I'm just thrilled for her."

Knopf joined Wallace at a White House reception before the president's speech, and she and others who accompanied the first lady's guests watched the event from the White House theater.

"It was great," she said. "The staff was wonderful. ... We all just sat there and watched it on CNN and applauded."

Knopf said she also got the chance to thank Michelle Obama for her support to military families, and the fact that Wallace met the president is "a thrill."

"It's still surreal, for both of us," she said.

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