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"LGBT Pride" month concludes with lunch and learn remarks from gay active-duty colonel

U.S. Air Force Col. Robert Coxwell, 557th Weather Wing vice commander, speaks to a gathering inside the Patriot Club during a diversity luncheon at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska June 24. Coxwell discussed some of the challenges he and his spouse, Tom, experienced as a same-sex couple before the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Charles Haymond/Released)

U.S. Air Force Col. Robert Coxwell, 557th Weather Wing vice commander, speaks to a gathering inside the Patriot Club during a diversity luncheon at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska June 24. Coxwell discussed some of the challenges he and his spouse, Tom, experienced as a same-sex couple before the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Charles Haymond/Released)

U.S. Air Force Col Robert Coxwell, 557th Weather Wing vice commander, talks to members of Team Offutt inside the Patriot Club during a diversity luncheon at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska June 24. Coxwell shared his personal experiences before the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Charles Haymond/Released)

U.S. Air Force Col Robert Coxwell, 557th Weather Wing vice commander, talks to members of Team Offutt inside the Patriot Club during a diversity luncheon at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska June 24. Coxwell shared his personal experiences before the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Charles Haymond/Released)

Jeff Knapp, left, and Jessi Hitchins from the University of Nebraska, Sexuality, Women & Gender Center discuss how Team Offutt members can support and understand the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender community during an event at the Patriot Club June 19 at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska called “How to by an Ally.” The event was one of many events planned during the month of June by the Offutt AFB Diversity Team to promote diversity. (U.S. Air Force photo by Delanie Stafford/Released)

Jeff Knapp, left, and Jessi Hitchins from the University of Nebraska, Sexuality, Women & Gender Center discuss how Team Offutt members can support and understand the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender community during an event at the Patriot Club June 19 at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska called “How to by an Ally.” The event was one of many events planned during the month of June by the Offutt AFB Diversity Team to promote diversity. (U.S. Air Force photo by Delanie Stafford/Released)

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Michael Shives, 1st Aerospace Command and Control Squadron, participates in an exercise with Elsbeth Magilton, left, and Lee Foster, right, during a “How to by an Ally” event held at the Patriot Club June 19 at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. The event was one of many events planned during the month of June by the Offutt AFB Diversity Team to promote diversity. (U.S. Air Force photo by Delanie Stafford/Released)

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Michael Shives, 1st Aerospace Command and Control Squadron, participates in an exercise with Elsbeth Magilton, left, and Lee Foster, right, during a “How to by an Ally” event held at the Patriot Club June 19 at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. The event was one of many events planned during the month of June by the Offutt AFB Diversity Team to promote diversity. (U.S. Air Force photo by Delanie Stafford/Released)

Bill Franklin, right, speaks with Sean Dugan, left, and Christopher Ross who were manning an Outserve Nebraska booth during a “How to by an Ally” event held at the Patriot Club June 19 at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. The event was one of many events planned during the month of June by the Offutt AFB Diversity Team to promote diversity. (U.S. Air Force photo by Delanie Stafford/Released)

Bill Franklin, right, speaks with Sean Dugan, left, and Christopher Ross who were manning an Outserve Nebraska booth during a “How to by an Ally” event held at the Patriot Club June 19 at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. The event was one of many events planned during the month of June by the Offutt AFB Diversity Team to promote diversity. (U.S. Air Force photo by Delanie Stafford/Released)

A 5K Rainbow Fun Run/Walk hosted by the Offutt Air Force Base Diversity Awareness Team was held June 12 on the Keystone Trail in Bellevue, Nebraska to promote diversity. The event was one of many events planned during the month of June, which is recognized as the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pride month. Nearly 40 people from Offutt AFB and the surrounding communities participated in the event. (U.S. Air Force photo by Delanie Stafford/Released)

A 5K Rainbow Fun Run/Walk hosted by the Offutt Air Force Base Diversity Awareness Team was held June 12 on the Keystone Trail in Bellevue, Nebraska to promote diversity. The event was one of many events planned during the month of June, which is recognized as the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pride month. Nearly 40 people from Offutt AFB and the surrounding communities participated in the event. (U.S. Air Force photo by Delanie Stafford/Released)

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Alexia Amadeo, who is assigned to the 20th Intelligence Squadron at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., runs alongside Hannah Loftin, center, and
Daisy Orozco, right, during a Rainbow Fun Run/Walk that was held on the Keystone Trail in Bellevue, Nebraska June 12 to promote diversity. The event was one of many events planned by the Offutt AFB Diversity Awareness Team during the month of June, which is recognized as the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pride month. Nearly 40 people from Offutt AFB and the surrounding communities participated in the event. (U.S. Air Force photo by Delanie Stafford/Released)

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Alexia Amadeo, who is assigned to the 20th Intelligence Squadron at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., runs alongside Hannah Loftin, center, and Daisy Orozco, right, during a Rainbow Fun Run/Walk that was held on the Keystone Trail in Bellevue, Nebraska June 12 to promote diversity. The event was one of many events planned by the Offutt AFB Diversity Awareness Team during the month of June, which is recognized as the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pride month. Nearly 40 people from Offutt AFB and the surrounding communities participated in the event. (U.S. Air Force photo by Delanie Stafford/Released)

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Mary Caitlin Dominguez, who is assigned to the 55th Intelligence Support Squadron at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., participates in a Rainbow Fun Run/Walk on the Keystone Trail in Bellevue, Nebraska June 12 to promote diversity. The event was one of many events planned by the Offutt AFB Diversity Awareness Team during the month of June, which is recognized as the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pride month. Nearly 40 people from Offutt AFB and the surrounding communities participated in the event. (U.S. Air Force photo by Delanie Stafford/Released)

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Mary Caitlin Dominguez, who is assigned to the 55th Intelligence Support Squadron at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., participates in a Rainbow Fun Run/Walk on the Keystone Trail in Bellevue, Nebraska June 12 to promote diversity. The event was one of many events planned by the Offutt AFB Diversity Awareness Team during the month of June, which is recognized as the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pride month. Nearly 40 people from Offutt AFB and the surrounding communities participated in the event. (U.S. Air Force photo by Delanie Stafford/Released)

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- On Sept. 20, 2011, the Department of Defense abolished the policy "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."  Then on June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court declared key components of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, which for the first time allowed same-sex married couples to receive federal benefits previously only offered to heterosexual couples. Together, these changes had major implications for military members married to spouses of the same sex.

U.S. Air Force Col. Robert Coxwell, who is the 557th Weather Wing vice commander and who is also openly gay, volunteered to speak at a "Serving and Proud Lunch and Learn" on June 25 at Offutt AFB to promote diversity.

Coxwell, who was joined by his husband Thom Lane, who traveled from Orlando, talked to a captivated audience for more than an hour about his experiences before and after the repeal of DOMA and the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policies.

"For 20-plus years, this is something that I had to make sure that I was very careful with," Coxwell said. "So speaking about this publicly - it's a little awkward...it's a little uncomfortable."

Coxwell and his husband have been in a relationship for 13 years but have lived apart for eight years of it because it wasn't financially feasible to have his spouse follow him from assignment to assignment. He said without the benefits afforded to traditional married couples, such as health insurance, additional housing allowance for dependents and the security of retirement benefits for spouses of deceased members, it would have been too great a financial risk to take.

Coxwell emphasized that throughout his career, he considered those challenges part of the sacrifices of serving in the military, but said that living apart from his spouse was a constant stressor.

"There's an emotional bill to pay," Coxwell said. "Those things that people take for granted; being able to go home and have dinner with your spouse - that's a very simple thing that you look forward at the end of the day. I had an emergency appendectomy but Thom couldn't make it to the hospital in time. I couldn't tell anyone at work who to call because it would have been clear I had a same sex partner. Not being able to talk to co-workers about simple daily events - 'Who'd you go to the football game with?' That era was a very stressful part of our lives because we had to maintain that separation."

In addition to the emotional stress, Coxwell estimates the financial burden of being geographically separated during those 8 years to be more than $250,000 when factoring in dual residences, travel to sustain their relationship and lost benefits such as with-dependent allowance for housing.

Coxwell also talked about the uncertainties he faced prior to the changes in policy, such as if he were to be killed in the line of duty. He wondered if there would be conflict or legal issues regarding his wishes. Lane was included in his will and was also listed as Coxwell's primary beneficiary and the person authorized to direct the disposition of his remains.

"At that time, Thom technically couldn't direct the disposition of my remains because he was not my spouse. If my designation was challenged, Thom might have had no opportunity to execute my intent," Coxwell said. This is just one of many unknowns which compounded the routine stress of deployments."

Nearly 40 members of Team Offutt attended the event, including one Airman who said he could relate to Coxwell's challenges. He was deployed with a gay active-duty member in Afghanistan prior to the repeal of DOMA and had also considered the disparities in benefits between himself and his gay co-worker.

"With all the attacks that were taking place...I was thinking, 'What if we get hit?' - my wife gets benefits his spouse wouldn't, said U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Tomas Morales. "I feel we are all equal wearing this uniform."

Coxwell said he welcomed the opportunity to speak about his experience with the hope it may help others understand challenges facing gay and lesbian service members. He said that while the Air Force has made great strides in accepting them, there's still work to do in educating those that still may be indifferent to same-sex marriages.

"We are introducing into society this new construct - this idea of same-sex marriage. It's never really had to be considered by society as a whole before," Coxwell said. "People have never been exposed to this and it takes time for people to adjust.

"If it's a matter of conscience for someone - if they have firmly held beliefs - I don't take offense at that," Coxwell said. "The line is where it affects someone else. Someone's personal beliefs are theirs and they should be able to maintain those as long as it's a respectful dynamic."

In addition to the "Serving and Proud Lunch and Learn" event, a 5k Rainbow fun run/walk was held June 12 along with a "How to be an Ally" presentation June 19 given by the University of Nebraska, Sexuality, Women & Gender Center. All of the events were planned by the Offutt AFB Diversity Awareness Team as part of the LGBT Pride month recognized by the DOD during the month of June.

"We really wanted to do things that involved, not just the LGBT community, but the allies as well to really help educate people on the LGBT community, said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Nicholas Hoover, who was one of the primary coordinators of the events. "It's the first time Offutt's ever really hosted "Pride," so to see every chair here full was pretty awesome."

Just last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that marriage equality is a constitutionally protected right, which requires state government to recognize same-sex marriages, and policies were also changed within the Air Force that outlines protections for discrimination against LGBT members.

Those in attendance applauded Col. Coxwell's courage to openly share his experience.

"For LGBT members, it is our duty to start the change, and to make it happen," said Julia, who's a U.S. Air Force first lieutenant. "Since I've been in the Air Force, I've noticed a huge difference - before people were still afraid to come out, but now I see more and more people coming out and talking about it openly."

"There's a new Air Force and we're here to work with each other and to accept each other," Morales said.