A gay couple has become the first to have a civil union on a US military base, an act unthinkable nine months ago.
Technical sergeant Erwynn Umali and civilian Will Behrens said their vows at the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst military chapel in New Jersey on 23 June.
The couple was watched by 150 friends and family, and their four children, two each from previous relationships with women, gave them away.
Umali, an active duty serviceman in the Air Force, told New York Daily News on Wednesday (18 July): ‘It’s a struggle that Will and I have gone through and so many people are going through.
‘Now I can introduce Will as my partner or my husband instead of my friend or my boyfriend. We don’t have to live in fear.’
The US military ended its 18-year-long Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy last September, allowing gay men and women to serve openly without being discharged.
Civil unions for gay couples have been allowed in New Jersey since 2007, but a same-sex marriage bill was vetoed by the governor in February. The couple plan to get legally married in New York.
Umali, originally from the Phillipines, and US-born Behrens both lived in deeply religious households and fought their homosexuality in their youth.
In 2005 Umali split from his wife and joined the Solid Rock Baptist Church hoping to ‘cure’ his sexuality. Instead, he spotted the choir director, Slate.com reports.
The men were introduced and became friends, and kept in touch by email when Umali was deployed to Afghanistan in 2008.
Behrens and Umali started secretly dating in 2009, soon after Behrens had left his wife. Behrens had feared his family would try to ‘cure’ him, and Umali would be discharged if the army found out.
However a few short months after DADT was repealed, Umali’s squadron was welcoming of his sexuality.
At a farewell lunch held before his assignment, he told 40 fellow airmen about his engagement and they were soon applauding his bravery.
In their vows, Behrens said: ‘I never met anyone that it was worth giving it all up for, until I met you. I give you my heart, my faith. I choose you today – forever and a day.’
Umali told his partner: ‘I’m trying to keep my military composure.
‘Just like I would fight for my country and sacrifice for it, and even die for my country as a member of the Air Force, I would do all of that for you.
‘You are my last love, forever and a day.’