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Married same-sex couples to get joint assignments

Sep. 17, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Tech. Sgt. Stacey Shunk, left, and Master Sgt. Angela Shunk, both assigned to Aviano Air Base, Italy, are the first Air Force same-sex couple to be accepted for assignments under the join spouse program.
Tech. Sgt. Stacey Shunk, left, and Master Sgt. Angela Shunk, both assigned to Aviano Air Base, Italy, are the first Air Force same-sex couple to be accepted for assignments under the join spouse program. (Airman Ryan Conroy/Air Force)
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When Master Sgt. Angela Shunk and Tech Sgt. Stacey Shunk first met in March 2011, openly acknowledging their relationship could have ended both their careers.

But in a sign of how much the military’s policies on same-sex marriages have changed, the Air Force will move the Shunks together in November from their current assignments at Aviano Air Base, Italy, to their new assignments at Hill Air Force Base, Utah.

They are the first married same-sex couple to receive a join spouse assignment in the Air Force, which tries to assign married active-duty couples to the same or nearby locations when one spouse must be moved.

In an interview, the Shunks said they are relieved that the year-and-a-half-long ordeal is over.

“It was a lot of stress and worries and tears,” Angela said. “For us, it’s a chapter now closed, and now we can move on normally, like any other military couple. To go from [the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’] till now is a huge, huge step. We knew that [the Defense of Marriage Act] would place barriers in front of us when we decided to get married. We knew that there would be some barriers that we would have to hurdle over in order to stay together or make our family work like it should.”

In February 2012, they first learned their unit, the 603rd Air Control Squadron, would be inactivated and they could be reassigned to different locations.

By that point, the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy that barred openly gay troops from serving was history, but DOMA still prevented the military from offering benefits such as join spouse assignment consideration for same-sex couples.

Angela received orders to go to Hill, but Stacey was assigned to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. They were originally scheduled to leave Italy in March 2013, but their unit’s inactivation got delayed, which gave them more time.

“We got lucky,” Angela said. “Had the unit closed in March, we most definitely would have gone to different locations.”

In June 2012, the Shunks made their first of two requests for an exception to the join spouse policy that would allow them to be assigned to the same place, even though the Air Force was still not officially recognizing their March 2012 marriage. But both times, the answer was no.

The Shunks said their leadership — including their commander, their first sergeant and even their wing’s vice commander and commander — were very helpful, and some called them to offer emotional support after their requests were denied.

“Everybody was willing to listen and take our request,” Stacey said. “They did everything that they could within the regulations.”

In a last-ditch effort to avoid being split up, the Shunks volunteered to extend their time at Aviano to finalize their squadron’s inactivation — as Stacey put it, “turning out the lights” — in hopes that DOMA would be overturned before they had to move in November.

Their leadership granted their requests for temporary positions, and on June 26, they got their wish when the Supreme Court struck down DOMA.

The Shunks quickly updated their information in the military’s data systems and reapplied for a join spouse assignment as soon as that option was opened up to same-sex married couples, on Aug. 30. They were accepted the same day and later assigned to Hill.

“I’m glad we didn’t give up,” Angela said. “We didn’t stop asking. Every no, we were like, ‘OK, what can we do now?’ ”

Stacey said she thought she would be disappointed that she missed out on a stint in Hawaii but said she was still “as happy as I could have been, even if I got Hawaii, just because we were going to be together.”

“If anything, I felt bad, because I knew that Hawaii was off the books because of my assignment,” Angela said. “I was happy that she was still happy.”■

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