Photo: Jeff Sheng via Facebook
The chapel at the McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst joint military base in Trenton, NJ—like any other base around the country—regularly plays host to weddings of service members. But on June 23, 2012, the ceremonial honor guard raised its arch of swords for a unique couple in American military history: Tech Sgt. Erwynn Umali and Will Behrens, two halves of the first same-sex military union.
For Umali, 34, and Behrens, 35, the journey to last month's landmark ceremony began well before the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" in December 2010. As members of the same conservative Baptist Church in southern New Jersey, their paths crossed first as friends in 2006 and later as pen-pals while Umali was deployed to Afghanistan in 2008. Both had been married to women—in fact, Behrens, a branch manager for a financial firm, was still married at the time. Both had kids. Both came from strict religious upbringings. And both knew there was something in their connection neither could deny. So when Behrens came home from work in mid-February 2010 to find his wife, his father, and three pastors waiting to confront him about his relationship with Umali, he decided it was time to live the truth. He left the house and texted Umali: "I'm coming home."
From the three-bedroom townhouse they now share 20 minutes from McGuire-Dix, Umali and Behrens planned their civil union ceremony (as gay marriage is not legal in New Jersey), making the centerpieces themselves and incorporating readings and music from family and friends. The couple's four kids insisted they process to a piano version of Miley Cyrus' "The Climb," joining Kelly Clarkson's "A Moment Like This," the Black Eyed Peas' "Tonight's Gonna Be a Good Night," and the traditional Irish song, "A Bird Without Wings" as the ceremony music. When chaplain Kay Reeb asked "Who giveth these grooms away?," the kids declared in unison: "We do!"
Before heading off to a weeklong "familymoon" in Disney World, both men offered vows to each others' children, promising to love them and to always be there. But it was Sgt. Umali's vows to his husband that honored the role the military played in their lives: "Just like I would fight for my country and sacrifice for it, and even die for my country as a member of the Air Force, I would do all of that for you. You are my last love, forever and a day."
Read more about the first same-sex military base wedding in the original Slate article.
—Phillip B. Crook