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RAEFORD, N.C. — Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Tracy Dice is facing the same painful milestones as any other grieving military widow — first holidays alone, delivery of the headstone, and every other reminder, large and small, of her loss.
But there's one way in which Dice is unique among military widows: She's mourning the loss of her wife, 29-year-old Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Donna Johnson, one of three soldiers killed Oct. 1 in Afghanistan by a suicide bomber.
As far as is known, Dice and Johnson are the first same-sex married military couple to have suffered a casualty since the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," said Stephen Peters, executive director of the American Military Partner Association.
And that makes Dice unique in another way, as well: She's ineligible for a number of benefits normally provided to widows because of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.
For example, the government pays travel costs of heterosexual spouses to Dover Air Force Base, Del., when fallen troops return to American soil.
Dice was not eligible for those allowances solely through her status as a same-sex widow. But the military did arrange to cover her travel expenses to Dover in the company of the Johnson family — though Dice is unsure how.
"Tracy Dice never received any benefits as a spouse; she received benefits as a soldier or as a friend of [Johnson's] family," said North Carolina National Guard spokesman Capt. Matthew Boyle.
The specifics of Dice's travel were handled by the Army's casualty affairs office, which did not respond to questions by press time Jan. 4.
Dice is also shut out of Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, a Veterans Affairs Department program that pays $1,215 a month to heterosexual spouses of service members who die on active duty. She's also left out of other notable benefits, such as the Survivor Benefit Plan and VA education benefits.
In the long term, she won't receive Tricare health coverage as other widows do, although, as a National Guardsman, she is eligible for the premium-based Tricare Reserve Select program. She'll continue to receive other benefits, such as commissary, exchange and other base privileges, by virtue of her own National Guard status.
"We married out of love, not [for] benefits. I am not a victim," Dice said.
Still, she said, "It's a sad statement that three soldiers lost their lives and all three were married, but one of the spouses was treated as if she was single."
A strong support system
As hard as this process has been for her, Dice believes it would be much harder for other same-sex spouses who may not have the same high level of support she has received from Johnson's family and from the military itself.
The situation could have been much worse, she said, if she wasn't in uniform herself, if Johnson's mother hadn't stood up for the rights of her daughter and Dice, and if the military hadn't done everything possible within the confines of the law.
"Everybody — the casualty assistance officer, my unit, her unit — everybody I've come in personal contact with has really stood up and done the right thing," she said, adding that other Army wives also have been supportive and protective.
"If other gay spouses have to go through this and don't have the family support, and are not in the military, it's too easy for them to get shut out and not have any rights whatsoever," Dice said.
The Johnson family's support has been critical to her emotional well-being, Dice said. Along with working to get her to Dover, they helped her receive a flag and set of awards, in addition to the flag Donna Johnson's mother received at the burial. The family also asked that Dice be assigned as a military escort when Johnson's remains were flown from Dover to Raeford, near Fort Bragg.
"That was a great honor, to be able to escort my wife back home," Dice said.
Sandra Johnson, Donna's mother, said she felt it was important to include Dice in the family's arrangements.
"A marriage is a marriage," she said during a visit to Dice's home in Raeford. "It was holy in their world. That's how I perceived it."
'We knew the rules'
Dice said she and Johnson both knew what they were getting into when they married last year on Valentine's Day during a whirlwind two-day trip to Washington, D.C., where gay marriage is allowed.
"We knew the laws, we knew the rules, we knew the regulations," she said.
Dice's face brightens when she describes her wife — the natural athlete who loved family and holidays, loved riding motorcycles to the beach, loved their dogs, loved renovating their home, loved to laugh.
"I wanted to get married because I love the sanctity of the union of marriage," Dice said.
It was also important to Donna Johnson because of her parents, married nearly 40 years.
"I knew how much marriage truly meant to her," Dice said.
Johnson deployed to Afghanistan in August with the North Carolina National Guard's 514th Military Police Company, helping train Afghan police.
Dice, who has served for four years with the North Carolina National Guard's 430th Ordnance Company, previously served four years on active Army duty. She was scheduled to deploy with the 430th but got bumped at the last minute for medical reasons.
Both had deployed earlier to Iraq, returning in 2008.
Dice and Johnson last talked Sept. 30 and agreed Johnson would call again the next day.
When that call didn't come, Dice began to panic. Her fears deepened after she read an online report about the deaths of three soldiers in Khowst, Afghanistan.
After calling the family readiness group and friends who are wives of soldiers in the unit, she realized a communications blackout was in effect because no one had answers. She called Johnson's family and urged them to answer all phone calls.
She then waited.
About 45 minutes later, Johnson's sister called and said the military was at their house, and she needed to come there.
Although a spouse is generally the first to be notified, and Johnson had listed Dice on her Record of Emergency Data for notification, technically Johnson's immediate biological family had to be notified first.
Unlike other widowed spouses, Dice was not assigned a casualty assistance officer.
"But [the Johnson family's] CAO did an awesome job," she said. "He did everything he could possibly do for me."
Troops control some military benefits. For example, they can designate anyone as beneficiaries of their Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance policy, as well as the military's $100,000 death gratuity.
"I can't go into details, but I can tell you that Donna treated the two most important women in her life equally," Dice said. "That speaks volumes in and of itself, especially with how close she was with her family."
But because Johnson was a single soldier under federal law, other issues have been more difficult for Dice.
Johnson had her will with her in Afghanistan, so it was included with her personal effects after she died. Dice said she was told the personal effects can go only to next of kin, and she was legally fourth in line after Johnson's biological family.
Johnson named Dice executor of her estate, and the will has to be certified in court.
For someone who didn't have a family as supportive as the Johnsons, Dice said, "Who knows what could have happened … how easy it would be for that will to disappear?"
Some grief counseling is available to Dice by virtue of her Guard status. That would not necessarily be the case for other same-sex spouses with no military ties, at least through government channels. But other organizations, such as Give an Hour and Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, provide grief counseling and support to same-sex partners.
The American Military Partner Association has been a source of support for Dice, who connected with them even before Johnson died. The organization provides some counseling for partners, and helps put them in touch with other counseling resources.
Dice's heart was not into decorating for the holidays this year, a stark contrast to the elaborate decorations she and Johnson put up last year.
But she and her mother-in-law did make a "grave blanket," with Christmas holly, berries, flowers and greenery, which covers the width and length of Johnson's grave.
And in the wee hours when Dice needs to talk to someone about the love of her life, she calls her mother-in-law.
"Sandra knows … how much I miss her," Dice said.