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One day after DOD approval, gay Fort Drum soldier gets ID card for spouse

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FORT DRUM — For the 14 months that Pfc. Kristene N. Kesling has served in the Army, military policy prevented her and her wife, Nicole L. Kesling, from sharing the support and benefits provided to the spouses of straight soldiers.

Nicole could not sign up under her wife’s Tricare health insurance. The two essentially were prevented from applying for on-post housing together. Lacking a military identification card, Nicole was unable to enter the post exchange or commissary by herself, and drew extra scrutiny when she presented her driver’s license at the gate to enter the post.

Those problems were remedied Tuesday, as the Department of Defense formally recognized same-sex spouses of service members. On Wednesday morning, Nicole received her military ID card, formally acknowledging her connection to her wife.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said Kristene, a human resources specialist in the Headquarters and Headquarters Company of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division. “It feels great to be treated as an equal regardless of sexual orientation.”

The Keslings spoke to the Times on Monday at their home in Watertown and on post Wednesday after Nicole received her new ID card.

The two were married June 27, 2012, in Chautauqua County, becoming just the third gay couple to marry in that county. They met about three years earlier while working together at a Barnes & Noble store in Seattle, where Kristene grew up. Nicole grew up in Oregon, Ohio, before moving to Seattle in 2009.

Kristene said her interest in serving in the Army increased after the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in fall 2011, which prohibited openly gay service members.

“Until I could officially do that, talk about my personal life with the people I work with, I didn’t want that conflict of interest going on,” Kristene said. “Even though I really wanted to be in the military, I didn’t want to hide who I was.”

She also considered taking the exam to join the Seattle Police Department. However, she said, with the rule change, she went to an Army recruiter’s office instead.

“They were like, ‘That’s awesome. We’re happy to have you,’” Kristene recalled her recruiter telling her. She enlisted July 7, 2012, 10 days after her wedding.

After a few months of training for Kristene, the pair arrived at Fort Drum in December.

Despite the potential bureaucratic problems facing the Keslings, they found that even before they arrived they had excellent support from their brigade’s staff, including assistance with paperwork that led to the post’s garrison approving an exception for them to live together off post.

“They went out of their way to help me,” Kristene said.

Since arriving on post, Kristene said, she has felt welcome among her fellow soldiers, and her sexual orientation has not been a problem among the soldiers working around her.

“I was expecting some problems integrating myself into the unit or the military, but it hasn’t been that way at all,” she said. “My experience has been positive beyond what I could have hoped for.”

The Keslings recalled their excitement when they learned about the repeal of portions of the Defense of Marriage Act in late June, with Kristene being told by Nicole, who had heard the news on TV.

“I was bouncing around for a minute,” Kristene said. “I was smiling all day.”

The Defense Department announced that full benefits for all spouses would be made available in mid-August, and about a week ago, the couple set up an appointment to process paperwork.

About 10:40 a.m. Wednesday, Nicole had her ID card. A few minutes after the ID card was processed, the Keslings had little time to celebrate: They had an appointment to sign up Nicole for Tricare. As a laborer at Northrop Farms, Dexter, Nicole does not have health insurance through her work.

“That’s a celebration in itself,” Kristene said.

They also said they had to make a few calls to family members.

“They’ve been waiting just as long as we have,” Nicole said.

Beyond Tuesday’s policy change, more changes are underway that will support gay soldiers after they retire. On Wednesday, the Obama administration announced that it would not enforce a federal statute that limited the distribution of Department of Veterans Affairs benefits to straight couples.

Kristene said she hopes that in the future, the military will take more steps to being open for gay service members.

“Somebody told me once that the military as a whole is just like a giant ship. It’s harder to turn, and it takes a longer time turning, but it will turn,” she said. “It’ll get there; it’ll just take a little longer. I’m sure all the kinks in the line will work themselves out with time.”

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