Monday afternoon, Air Force Staff Sgt. Ashley Carney had just wrapped up a meeting at MacDill Air Force Base to go over the final details of her move to Turkey, where she and her wife would become one of the first gay married military couples transferred to a Muslim country.
A few days earlier, dozens of boxes full of goods the couple had collected over their four years together had been shipped off to Incirlik Air Base. Now all Carney had to do was wait to board a flight, originally scheduled for sometime today.
But shortly after walking out of the meeting, a call came down from the Air Force Personnel Center at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph Air Force Base in Texas.
The transfer, called a permanent change of station or PCS, was scrubbed. Apparently, those processing the orders, and even Carney herself, failed to realize that Turkey is not one of the eight countries that have treaties with the United States allowing residency for same-sex civilian spouses of military members. Carney, 27, says she was told if they had gone to Turkey, her wife, 22, would have been sent back home.
It only became an issue after questions from The Tampa Tribune, Air Force officials acknowledge.
“This is ridiculous,” says Carney, who is highly regarded by the Joint Communications Support Element she was assigned to at MacDill, according to JCSE's chief of staff. “Whoever cut these orders didn't have training. They could have gotten me over there and gotten an American deported.”
The Air Force Personnel Center, which oversees transfers, said that the error took place at MacDill, where the Military Personnel Section “did not note the fact that SSgt Carney was married to a same-sex partner and continued to process her Permanent Change of Station (PCS) orders to Turkey,” according to an email to the Tribune from AFPC spokesman Mike Dickerson. Officials with the Air Mobility Command, responsible for the MacDill personnel who processed Carney's orders, did not comment for the record by press time.
Had MacDill personnel noted that Carney was in a same-sex marriage, she would have been offered either another assignment or a 15-month tour in Turkey without her spouse, Dickerson says. After being alerted of the problem by the Tribune, AFPC on Monday offered Carney an assignment, which she accepted, to RAF Mildenhall in England that would allow her spouse to go, too. Jamie Carney, however, won't be able to go to England for another month because of medical clearance and visa requirements, Dickerson says.
The Carneys are not the only same-sex couple to experience complications in their transfer. While the U.S. military has accepted gay spouses, that isn't the case everywhere in the world. Late last month, a gay married couple from another Air Force base that had been given orders to go to Germany was informed that permission for the civilian spouse was also issued in error.
“I know of five others beside this couple who ... went to various locations, and were told, “sorry, we can't in-process you because you are a same-sex couple,' ” says Ashley Broadway, director of family affairs for the American Military Partner Association, which represents lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered military members. “I know of couples who have gotten to the country and turned away because the lack of communications coming from the Department of Defense. It is just ridiculous,”
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When Ashley Carney met Jamie Lynn Bertram at the Honey Pot in Ybor City in October 2010, it was “love at first sight,” says Carney.
It was also a very different time for gays in the military. The “Don't Ask Don't Tell” prohibition against gays openly serving was still in effect.
“In the beginning I did not want to be anywhere near her in public, because there could be work people around,” says Carney. “I was living a double life.”
But a short time after the couple met, things began to change.
In December 2010, Congress voted to end the 17-year-old policy against openly gay service members. In February 2013, after much debate and controversy, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel laid out a plan for extending benefits to same-sex domestic partners of military members.
“Married couples, irrespective of sexual orientation, and their dependents, will be granted full military benefits,” Hagel wrote in a memo to service chiefs Feb. 11, 2013.
However, making policy a reality is no easy task, Hagel wrote. In order for a gay couple to be stationed overseas, they must be given what is called a command sponsorship by the combatant command in control of that region of the world. The combatant commands have to work out agreements with host nations in their regions.
“With regard to on-base housing, burial and benefits related to command sponsorship overseas, these benefits present complex legal and policy challenges due to their nexus to statuatorily-prohibited benefits and due to ongoing reviews about how best to provide scarce resources.”
One of the biggest sticking points was that gay marriage is only allowed in 17 states plus the District of Columbia. After the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, Hagel in September issued additional guidance, giving gay couples in the continental United States up to a week of leave to get married and 10 days if they are outside.
On May 28, Carney was ordered to go to Turkey alone after eight years at MacDill. On Oct. 29, a month after Hagel's latest guidelines, the couple got married in California. A short while later, Ashley Carney asked for her spouse to accompany her.
Carney applied to bring her wife in what the military calls an “accompanied tour.” That's when the confusion began, she says, as Hagel's warning about the complexities of turning policy into practice became apparent.
“When I started applying to be a joint spouse with her, and have her come with me to Turkey, I was told they weren't sure of what the rules were,” says Carney. “They said it had never come up. I must have talked to 20 different people.”
However, Australia, Austria, Canada, England, Laos, New Zealand, Nepal and Spain are the only countries with which the U.S. has agreements to allow residency for the civilian spouses of same-sex service members.
For her part, Carney did not realize the host-country issues either, despite the transfer form stating that it is “mandatory” to “review the host nation customs and laws of the country they are being reassigned to prior to departing current duty station ... for the appropriate rules.”
Neither Carney nor her wife did that.
On Jan. 6, Carney was issued her transfer orders to head to the 39th Logistics Readiness Squadron at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. Jamie Lynn Bertram was listed as her spouse and military dependent. Three weeks later, movers were at their St. Petersburg apartment complex, packing up all their belongings.'
The couple expressed excitement at the move, and trepidation as well.
“I'm beyond ecstatic that I will be allowed to go with my wife,” says Jamie Carney amid the clamor of four men hauling boxes down three flights of stairs.
“We'll be there for two years,” says Ashley Carney. “My biggest concern is how the locals will react and how the military people will react. Gay marriage is still a big controversy.”
But less than a week after the movers packed everything up, and shortly after working out the final transfer details at MacDill, the Air Force changed everything.
“It's like super stressful,” says Carney. “We have no furniture, no food in the pantry. We had to sleep on the floor.”
As she speaks, Carney says her wife is checking out a temporary living quarters where the couple will live at MacDill until they are transferred to England.
The Air Force says it will ship the couple's belongings to Mildenhall.
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Broadway, whose American Military Partner Association represents about 5,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered service members, estimates that between 3 percent and 7 percent of the 1.4 million active duty service members belong to the LGBT community. She says the Department of Defense “should sit down and have discussions with the individual commands so we can get clear guidance to families, so they can make better choices.”
This is especially important now, says Broadway, because the transfer season swings into high gear in May.
Increased coordination is taking place, says Pentagon spokesman Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen.
“Combatant Commands are working with Department of State counterparts to help clarify how our host-nation partners interpret the definition of 'dependent' as pertaining to U.S. command-sponsored same-sex spouses with respect to our relevant Status of Forces Agreements,” Christensen says in an email to the Tribune.
State Department officials declined comment.
Officials from U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in most of the Middle East and South Asia, and is one of six geographic combatant commands, said they don't track same sex couples.
Officials from U.S. European Command, which oversees Europe, including Turkey where Carney was supposed to go, did not offer comment before deadline.
A representative from the Turkish embassy in Washington said in an email that if the same-sex couple is both in the military no visas are needed and if one is a civilian, a visa would be issued under “family reunion.”
Carney says while happy to be going to England, the last-minute change is creating havoc in her life. Not only will she have to wait for her spouse to arrive, but the delay could cost them thousands of dollars for housing. They won't be allowed to bring their pit bull into England and now she is in limbo at work, with her email already turned off and her replacement already on the job.
“I am like the extra kid in the office,” she says. “No one knows what to do.”
Dickerson, the Air Force Personnel Center spokesman, says the bottom line is that the Carney's move was stopped before the couple ran into trouble overseas.
“The Air Force has a long-standing tradition of taking care of its people,” he says. “AFPC is fully committed to properly caring for the primary weapon in the Air Force arsenal — our Airmen. We will continue to do our utmost to ensure that we are not unduly placing our Airmen and their families in a situation that could develop into a hardship.”