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For gay couples hoping for a military burial, the fight for love doesn’t end with death

<i>Otto Kitsinger/AP</i><br/>US Navy veteran Madelynn Taylor in 2014
AP
Otto Kitsinger/AP
US Navy veteran Madelynn Taylor in 2014

By AJ Willingham, CNN

In Willamette National Cemetery in Oregon, lines of marble rise row on row above acres of vivid green. Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Linda Campbell knew the view well. She had chosen her nearby waterfront apartment so that she could see, from a distance, the place where her wife silently waited for her.

Nancy Lynchild died of cancer in 2012. It was too soon. Too soon for Campbell, who lived another six years without the love of her life. Too soon for a nation that had not yet federally legalized same-sex marriage, leaving Campbell with little recourse when Veterans Affairs denied her request for Lynchild’s burial on the same hallowed ground to which other military spouses were entitled.

Still, Campbell fought. Oregon state leaders helped her convince Veterans Affairs to allow Lynchild’s remains to be interred at Willamette. When Campbell died in 2018, her ashes were buried with her wife’s and sealed behind a stone carved with a sandhill crane, a symbol for their undying love.

Campbell was the first gay veteran to secure burial rights for her spouse, and the pair were the first same-sex military couple to be buried together at a US national cemetery.

Campbell put their legacy into words in 2013: “Our nation will know and everyone who passes by here will know that we lovingly, proudly and legally were wed, and that we have earned the right to be here in this hallowed space.”

The right to a military burial for gay spouses was guaranteed nationwide with the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015, but only a handful of known same-sex military couples are buried across the 172 national cemeteries in the US — grounds reserved chiefly for military members and selected family.

For most, the honor has been hard won with bravery and unerring love.

Brad Avakian was one of the Oregon state leaders who helped Lynchild secure a place for her wife at Willamette. In the process, he got to know the couple he describes as “remarkable.”

“The word ‘fight’ is used so often in politics it loses its meaning,” he told CNN. “But this was a fight.”

Avakian is now a professor at Willamette University, and a vice president at Clark College in Vancouver, Washington. When he first met Campbell and Lynchild in 2012, he was the Oregon state labor commissioner. To Campbell, he said, her military service and her marriage were two of the most important things in her life. She wanted to be buried in Willamette, where her veteran father was buried. But she also wanted to be with the woman she loved.

“Linda had expressed for so long the dismay that she and her father had given their entire careers to this country and this country would not recognize her as a human being in return,” Avakian said.

“She had gone through the era of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ She had gone through everything you would think a woman had to go through in the military. And this final fight felt like that whole era all over again.”

Avakian said his repeated appeals to then-President Barack Obama went unheeded. It was Eric Shinseki, former US secretary of Veterans Affairs, who advanced Campbell’s case and eventually granted her the waiver she needed for Lynchild’s burial.

Avakian and his wife remained close with Campbell after that. She showed them the apartment she bought across the river. When she died, Avakian spoke at her funeral. There was no pomp and bluster, he said. Just a feeling of warmth, of celebration. Of two people together again, as they should be.

“They were two of the most loving, compassionate people you’d ever want to meet,” he said. “Linda had a disciplined and driven military side to her, in beautiful combination with a loving, compassionate view of the world. It showed in everything she did, and it showed in her relationship.”

At the same time Campbell was fighting for her wife’s memory in Oregon, Madelynn Taylor was waging a similar battle in Idaho. The longtime LGBTQ activist and Navy veteran met her wife, Jeanne Mixner, in 1995. It was love at first sight. Together, they attended church and made a name for themselves in their Boise-area community until Mixner’s death in 2012.

Taylor wanted Mixner’s remains to be buried at the military site where she herself hoped to rest one day, but no amount of influence or anger could persuade the Idaho Department of Veterans Affairs to allow it. At the time, the Defense of Marriage Act meant same-sex spouses could only be buried together at such sites if they lived in states where their marriage was deemed legal. Idaho was not such a state, and a lawsuit Taylor filed against the state’s VA was rejected.

It wasn’t until Idaho’s ban on same-sex marriage was overturned in 2014 that Mixner’s place in the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery was secured.

Taylor’s righteous defiance was a hallmark of her activism, her sister Karen Hicks said.

“She was always a problem solver,” Hicks told the Idaho Statesman. “If there’s a will, there’s a way with her.”

When Taylor took on the lawsuit, Hicks said she asked her sister if she thought she was taking on too much.

“She said, ‘No, when you feel strongly enough about something, you get it done.'”

Taylor was a fixture at Pride events and other gatherings in her area. When she died in 2021, she was mourned as the mother of a movement, a wife whose devotion would be enshrined in history and in stone.

A resting place at a national cemetery is a great honor for military veterans, one that was denied many same-sex couples until 2015. However, gay veterans have always fought for their right to be included and celebrated in such spaces.

Since 1980, LGBTQ activists have taken part in memorial ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, the largest and most famous national cemetery in the country. And yet, no same-sex military couples are known to be marked among the 400,000 graves there.

Not far from Arlington, the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, DC, is the site of a one-of-a-kind LGBTQ section that honors military members and national leaders who fought for equality and dignity. Their tombstones shout into the silence: “Gay is good,” reads a plaque below the grave of Frank Kameny, an iconic activist, civil servant and World War II veteran. A glossy nameless marble headstone marks the grave of Leonard Matlovich, one of the first LGBTQ veterans to protest the military’s ban on homosexuality, as one belonging to “A Gay Vietnam Veteran.”

“When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men,” his stone reads, “and a discharge for loving one.”

To be recognized in death not only for their service, but for their true selves, was a righteous quarrel for these veterans, who served their country despite criminalization and oppression of their identities.

Today, in a slightly brighter future, that torch is held high by couples like Campbell and Lynchild, like Taylor and Mixner, and like the Rev. Lowell Worthington and his husband, Ken Sims.

Worthington, an Army veteran who served in the Korean War, died in 2017 and was interred at Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery. When his husband Ken Sims died in 2021, they became the first same-sex couple to be buried at the site.

The Rev. Erin Wyma of the Cathedral of Hope presided over Sims’ burial. She remembers the couple, who had been attending the church since the 1990s, as strong, admired fixtures in the congregation. They loved people, she said, and hosted parties at their house for years.

When Worthington died, the community came together to support Sims in his grief. After all, they were family.

“Family can be such a loaded word for LGBTQ people,” Wyma said. “So many have difficult relationships with their own families. That’s why chosen family is so important.”

It was very hot the day Wyma helped lay Sims to rest with his husband. Family — chosen and otherwise — were in abundant attendance. The military staff at the Dallas-Forth Worth cemetery were nothing but lovely, she said. In fact, it wasn’t until after the service that the true significance of the event dawned on her.

In the moment, under a searing Dallas sun, she was just grateful to pay remembrance to them as they were, and name the love they had chosen for each other.

“We were in a military place. There were people in uniform, guards nearby. And I felt free to speak about their time together,” she said. “It was a privilege to be able to speak openly about how much they loved each other.”

With time, more such couples are destined to find similar peace together. When they are laid to rest, the tireless battles of their forebears will ensure they are honored wholly — as veterans and as family.

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