A local woman believed to be the first same-sex widow of a fallen U.S. soldier has thrown her support behind efforts to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act.
Staff Sgt. Tracy Dice Johnson of the North Carolina National Guard was part of a nationwide conference call Wednesday with members of the Respect for Marriage Coalition.
The coalition, comprised of more than 100 civil rights, faith, health, labor, business, legal and LGBT organizations, is speaking out against the federal law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman ahead of a Supreme Court case that will examine the law's constitutionality.
Johnson, who lives near Raeford, was one of four speakers on Wednesday's conference call, joining former Congressman and retired three-star Adm. Joe Sestak, former Congressman and Army Capt. Patrick Murphy and OutServe-SLDN Executive Director Allyson Robinson.
In a brief statement, an emotional Johnson recounted the way she learned of the death of her wife, Staff Sgt. Donna Johnson, last year.
Unlike other military spouses, Johnson was not regarded as the next of kin by military officials and was not eligible for benefits typically reserved for war widows because of the federal law.
While the military has made progress since the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, soldiers like herself are still treated as second-class citizens, Johnson said.
"They deserve better," she said. "They deserve to be treated equally."
The conference call took place weeks before the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in U.S. vs. Windsor, a court case that calls into question the legality of DOMA.
"As someone who served in the United States Navy for more than 30 years, I believe DOMA undermines military families and, therefore, eventually erodes military readiness," said Sestak. "We have long known that supporting service members' families affects our military's effectiveness, as well as our ability to recruit and retain the most talented fighting force in the world. But DOMA prevents the Pentagon from offering equal benefits and protections to same-sex couples and their families."
"I believe that DOMA is neither correct nor practical for a military force devoted to defending our freedom and equality and, therefore, that it is unconstitutional," he said.
Murphy said DOMA was not an issue under Don't Ask, Don't Tell because gay troops were not allowed to serve openly.
But now, the law creates a two-tiered system, with incongruous benefits for heterosexual and same-sex spouses.
"When you treat troops differently, it's wrong," Murphy said before calling the law disruptive to military units and national security.