WASHINGTON // Tania Dunbar celebrated a first in her 13-year Army career on Sunday - she donned her uniform and proudly introduced Deborah Graham as her wife, not the "cousin" who had previously joined her around Fort Stewart in Georgia.
The formal end of the military's 18-year "don't ask, don't tell" ban on service members revealing their homosexuality has allowed the couple to share the news that they married in the District of Columbia in May. From now on there will be no more living 50 miles from the Army base to avoid Ms Dunbar's colleagues.
There will be no more homecomings like the one last year when Ms Dunbar, a missile systems technician, returned from Iraq: Ms Graham stayed away from the families' welcome-home ceremony, worried that an emotional reunion would spark too many questions.
"My partner was out there fighting but she came home and couldn't acknowledge me," Ms Graham said.
The couple joined 60 other people, including founding members of the nascent Military Partners and Families Coalition, on Sunday at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia to honour the spouses, partners, girlfriends and boyfriends who have endured years of secrecy and isolation.
Many said they worked hard to remain hidden, even guarding their relationships from their colleagues and friends lest they "slip up" and jeopardise their partners' military careers.
Several said they never found other partners of gay and lesbian service members for support until recently because, in the eyes of the Pentagon, none was allowed to exist publicly.
Ariana Bostian-Kentes, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, helped form the coalition last autumn after she met other partners of gay and lesbian service members at a Pentagon meeting about the end of the ban.
While the group has 15 military families, she said they represent "hundreds" more who are only now emerging. "We were not open to the gay community because we were military families," said Ms Bostian-Kentes, whose partner of four years is in the Army and stationed in Afghanistan.
"We weren't open to the military community because we were gay families."
Ms Bostian-Kentes said that gay military partners experienced the same stresses as other service members' families but lacked the official support groups that prepare most families for a deployment or help them relocate after a transfer.
But the lifting of "don't ask, don't tell" does not allow same-sex military partners to receive health insurance or housing benefits.
* The Washington Post