Overcoming barriers: serving openly

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Mariette Adams
  • 6th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

For more than 20 years of her service, Col. Karen Church, the chief nurse with the 6th Medical Group at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, kept a secret.

In 1991, a then prior active duty Air Force nurse, Church served as a critical care nurse at the veteran's hospital in Albuquerque, New Mexico. There she met Vi Barriger, a floor nurse at the same hospital. It wasn’t love at first sight, but they eventually developed a relationship and became a couple. After three years together, Church returned to active duty.

At the time, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy didn’t allow military members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community to openly serve. For that reason, Barriger took on a new role.

"I became a travel nurse,” explained Barriger, Church’s spouse. “I would go wherever she was stationed and set up a household, then I would disappear because we couldn't let everyone know that we were a couple.”

I would be gone for about 13 weeks at a time and then come home for a week or so. I would come back, if she had a permanent change of station (PCS) or a temporary duty assignment, to take care of the house and that kind of stuff, but for the most part we spent a good part of the last 25 years apart."

To avoid questions, Church introduced Barriger as her sister.

"When I was deployed or when we would PCS, it was my ‘sister’ taking care of things, and it just made it very difficult to be able to do that.”
Church was often torn between serving her country and her secret relationship.

"It was kind of a feeling of deception because I had to lean on the core values, which were very important to me and why I chose to serve in the Air Force; yet, I couldn't even acknowledge who I was," said Church.

Church often pretended to “be single.” At times, she felt close guarded, unable to express an important part of her life. When deployed, she had to ignore the fact that she had a significant other at home taking care of things, and to a lot of people, Barriger didn’t even exist.

To people around her, she had a sister but that was it. She avoided discussing details out of fear of raising questions. In deployed environments many find strength opening up, but for Church opening up meant danger.

“I think the worst time I ever had was when Karen was in Afghanistan and under fire a couple of times,” said Barriger. “It came right down to the fact I wouldn't have even been able to claim her body; I had no rights."

Through all the years and challenges they faced, Church and Barriger stood by each other, hoping that that their clandestine relationship could eventually emerge from the shadows.

On September 20, 2011, the military officially repealed the “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” policy, allowing military members of the LGBT community to serve openly; and in 2013, the Department of Defense began providing same-sex service member spouses’ benefits.

“Throughout our history, brave LGBT soldiers, sailors, Airmen, Coast Guardsmen and Marines have served and fought for our nation,” said Ash Carter, the Secretary of Defense. “Their readiness and willingness to serve has made our military stronger and our nation safer. We continue to take great pride in all that these men and women contribute to the Department and our mission.”

Church no longer needed to keep that part of herself a secret and in 2014, Church and Barriger decided to get married.

“Vi was kind of a non-entity for a long time; then she became the sister that was traveling the road as I was,” said Church. “So when we were able to legally get married, and receive the spouse benefits and rights, I was proud to be able to say this is my spouse, and make sure people understand that is my relationship.”

Since Church’s decision to serve openly, she has found support in many of her fellow Airmen, family and friends. Church now serves openly with Barriger by her side.