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Staff Sgt. Tracy Dice not considered war widow, despite loss of wife in Afghanistan

RAEFORD - Clutching a copy of her marriage certificate and racked with grief, Tracy Dice steeled herself for a battle.

Dice had just received a call from her in-laws, summoning her to their Hoke County home.

Dice knew what lay ahead. Her wife, fellow National Guard member Donna Rae Johnson, failed to call her that October morning from Khost, Afghanistan. Worse, Dice learned through the Internet that three unidentified soldiers had been killed in the same area hours earlier.

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And now National Guard officers had shown up at her in-laws' home.

On occasion, Dice and Johnson had discussed what would happen if one of them were to die while serving their country.

They knew that the military would not recognize their same-sex marriage. A federal law, the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, defines marriage as the legal union of one man and one woman. The military abides by the letter of that law.

But Dice was determined to fight to be part of her wife's affairs. That's why she clutched her marriage certificate, intent on being able to prove her connection to Johnson and terrified that she would somehow be excluded.

The marriage certificate did little good. The casualty officers who showed up at her in-laws' home were bound by the Defense of Marriage Act. The officers could not legally recognize Dice as the widow and notified her in-laws of Johnson's death before she arrived.

The Defense of Marriage Act held other ramifications for Dice, who is believed to be the first same-sex war widow in the U.S. military:

Since she was not recognized as a spouse or family member, Dice could have been left behind when Johnson's body arrived from Afghanistan. Instead, her mother-in-law intervened and a military officer "pushed the edges of the envelope" to allow Dice to escort Johnson's body from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

In correspondence from the Department of Defense, Dice said, officials expressed their condolences for the loss of her "significant other." The lone exception was President Obama, the only government official to refer to Johnson as Dice's wife.

Moments before Johnson's funeral, a small ceremony was held out of public view in the church basement. There, Dice said, uniformed officers presented her with an American flag. During the funeral, the flag that had draped the coffin was handed to Dice's mother-in-law, Sandra Johnson, instead of the grieving widow.

The Department of Veterans Affairs denied Dice's application for survivor's benefits.

Her treatment would have been even worse, Dice said, if not for the support from her in-laws and the pressure they put on the military to include their daughter's wife.

"Everything is because of Sandra's kindness," Dice said. "I don't think she understands how great she's been."

Sandra Johnson said it was only fitting to include the woman both she and her daughter loved.

"I consider Tracy mine now," she said. "Any mother would do what I did for their children.

"I don't know what is taboo and what is not. I just know what is right."

Dice worries that other same-sex spouses who don't have that same love and support will suffer from the policies that led the military to disregard her marriage.

"To be shut out completely? It's a tragedy that a soldier could fall and a spouse not be supported," Dice said. "It's 100 percent wrong. It just doesn't feel right.

"Her mother is the only reason I've gotten anything. I'm not doing any of this for benefits. If I didn't stand up for people who might come behind me, it would be wrong."

For six years, Tracy Dice and Donna Rae Johnson hid their relationship - including their engagement - from the military.

For all of its good intentions, the military's don't ask don't tell policy kept the couple in the closet. If they had been open about their sexual orientation, the policy would have allowed the military to boot them out of the service.

Like a lot of other people, Dice and Johnson headed to Washington, D.C., to get married shortly after the repeal of don't ask don't tell in September 2011. They wed on Valentine's Day last year.

Sandra Johnson said the pair were obviously in love and worked hard for everything they had.

The family took vacations together, she said, and loved to go to the beach.

"I've always tried to treat (Dice) as one of my own," she said.

Dice had served on Fort Bragg for four years before switching to the National Guard so that she didn't have to worry about being stationed away from Johnson.

Both women had deployed before, Dice in 2006 and 2008 and Johnson in 2007, when she volunteered to go, and last year. Both had earned the rank of staff sergeant.

The couple knew the rigors of deployment, of being apart, Dice said. But Johnson's last deployment was different.

"I had a bad feeling about this deployment," Dice said. "I told her I didn't want her to go. But I supported her 110 percent."

Dice's intuition proved true. Johnson and two other members of her unit - the 514th Military Police Company based in Winterville - died Oct. 1 when a suicide bomber attacked while they were on patrol.

Johnson had told Dice the day before that she would call before her mission.

When that didn't happen, Dice called her mother-in-law and asked that she be prepared for a phone call. Dice knew the National Guard would not call her.

Then she lay down.

"I tried to bury my head and hopefully wake up in a few hours with a phone call from Donna," she said.

Less than an hour later, Dice was told to go to her in-laws' home.

A week later, on Oct. 13, more than 1,000 people attended Johnson's funeral at Raeford Presbyterian Church.

Sandra Johnson said she expected 50 or so people to attend. When she arrived at the funeral home that morning, the streets of Raeford were barren. When she emerged hours later, she found people lining the streets for nearly eight blocks, four and five deep.

"I was very proud of Raeford that day," Sandra Johnson said. "She would have been, too. It made you believe that there was some good to this. It made you pull together."

Months after the funeral, the flag that Dice received before the service lies in a case in the living room of the home they had shared.

The home, just south of Fort Bragg's large training area, is dotted with photographs of the pair.

The photos serve as reminders. So does the ring Dice wears next to her own wedding band - the same ring Johnson wore when she was killed.

Explosions from the nearby artillery range often shake the photographs, but Dice doesn't mind. Gently shifting the frames back in place, she said she is used to the noise.

She said the pair moved into the Hoke County home in 2008 following deployments.

It was their dream home, Dice said, describing how she first saw the house and then signed the paperwork to move in on the same day.

Now, Dice busies herself with renovations, hoping to fulfill the plans she and Johnson made for the house.

The work, which Dice is completing with help from a friend, is therapeutic.

"It takes my mind off of things," she said.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to review the legality of the Defense of Marriage Act later this year.

And this month, Chuck Hagel, the former U.S. senator picked by President Obama as the next secretary of defense, said he favors extending military benefits to same-sex couples.

But months after Donna Johnson's funeral, Dice still finds it difficult to process that the military, and America in general, could so easily brush aside her marriage.

Through her in-laws, people within the N.C. National Guard and her own military service, Dice said, she's been able to cope.

Dice does not fault the military for how she has been treated. She understands that it is bound by federal law.

"The military did the best they could under the circumstances they can work with," Dice said. "I'm blessed to have gotten anything."

But she's still hurt, mostly by the fact that she's not recognized as Johnson's widow.

"You don't grieve like this and not be a widow," she said.

Staff writer Drew Brooks can be reached at brooksd@fayobserver.com .

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