First openly gay senior officer in U.S. Army speaks to Women’s Leadership Program at George Washington University.
By Ruth Steinhardt
On her second-ever parachute jump, as one of the first women assigned to a combat training center, Tammy Smith felt a blinding crack against her jaw. Exiting badly from the plane, she had been hit in the face with her parachute’s release assembly. Her straps were twisted dangerously around each other. Hurtling through the air and bleeding profusely, she remembered her jump instructor’s advice:
Trust your equipment. It will not fail you.
More than 20 years later, that young jumper is now Brigadier General Tammy Smith of the U.S. Army Reserve, the first openly gay person to serve at that rank in the armed forces. In an interview with George Washington Today, Brig. Gen. Smith said that long ago advice from her instructor has become one of her guiding principles.
“Each person has these values, these characteristics that make them uniquely who they are,” she said. “That’s your equipment, and you need to trust that. You need to take exactly who you are into each environment that you need to lead in, and not let anyone else stereotype you.”
That was the advice Brig. Gen. Smith gave to members of the Women’s Leadership Program at a special symposium on the George Washington University’s Mount Vernon Campus Thursday. But, the brigadier general admitted, she was not always able to follow that principle herself—at least not completely.
Raised in the small town of Oakland, Ore., Brig. Gen. Smith attended the University of Oregon on a four-year Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship and joined the military after her graduation in 1986. At the time, she said, she had no idea of the newly integrated context in which she was joining the military: the Women’s Army Corps had only been disbanded in 1978, and the first female officers graduated from West Point in 1980.
“For me, that lack of context was actually kind of good because I wasn’t limited,” she said. “I never second guessed myself because I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to be there, so because of that I was able to just go and do my best job.”
The weight of expectations did not constrain her, but other circumstances did. As a gay woman, “I had to keep my life completely secret for 25 years,” she said, until the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy in 2010.
“I went through my career compartmentalizing my life,” she said. “I had two sets of friends: my regular coworkers, and then what I called my off-the-grid friends, members of the LGBT community. I felt the most myself with that group, but we had our rules. We had to pretend like we didn’t know each other, so as not to put ourselves in a position where we had to explain how we happened to know each other.”
During that secretive time, on a cruise in 2004, Brig. Gen. Smith met the woman who is now her wife, Tracey Hepner. They were married in 2012, shortly after Brig. Gen. Smith’s return from deployment in Afghanistan and the repeal of DADT and just a few months before her promotion to brigadier general.
“Initially, even after the repeal [of DADT] and the promotion, we would go to a venue, and Tracey would go with me—because she could, now—and I simply would forget to introduce her to people because I was so practiced at hiding her,” Brig. Gen. Smith recalled. “I’m better at that now. But even when the gate was open, I constrained myself.”
Integrating those previously separate parts of her life, she said, has allowed her to bring one of her great sources of strength—her relationship with her wife—to her leadership role in the Army. “We’re a military family that happens to be gay, not a gay family that happens to be military,” she said. “Some people say, ‘It’s OK to be gay and serve in the military, but why do you have to tell everyone about it?’ I tell them that I don’t care if you know about my orientation, but I want you to know my wife.”
Overall, Brig. Gen. Smith said, her colleagues have been supportive and accepting. “I’m proud of the Army and the Department of Defense and the Army Reserve,” she said. “After the Defense of Marriage Act was ruled unconstitutional, the military just rolled with it. They said a married couple with a marriage license is a married couple, and they treat all of us the same way in terms of access to benefits and equality.”
That dangerous day at jump school, falling through the air with her parachute tangled and blood in her mouth, Tammy Smith trusted her equipment, trusted her own resources and did as her instructor had taught her to disentangle herself safely. She made it to earth.
“I landed safely on the ground, my tooth knocked out, ran back to the recovery area, blood running down my face. The whole place went silent,” she remembered. “The first sergeant looked at me, saw what happened—and after a second he said, ‘All right, go jump again.’ And I did.”