Tammy Smith struggled to hide her sexuality while serving in the Army. She became the highest-ranking openly gay officer after DADT was repealed in 2011.
After graduating from high school in Oakland, Oregon, Tammy Smith could not afford to pay for college and decided to become an agricultural journalist instead. She was selected by the Oregon Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapter to be its state reporter. While reading her FFA magazine, she saw an Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) advertisement captioned, “Can’t afford college? Let the army show you how.” Smith eventually applied for and received a ROTC scholarship, enrolling at the University of Oregon in 1982.
It was during her freshman year that she realized she was gay. But this was problematic as she was preparing to enter the Army during the era of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. This policy prevented LGBTQ+ people from openly serving, and it was grounds for dishonorable discharge.
“The department created the statement on paper where we had to explicitly state what our sexual orientation was,” Smith said in an article for the University of Oregon Alumni Association. “It was not a welcoming time, and people weren’t accepting towards LGBT people. My scholarship was the only way for me to stay in college, so I knew I couldn’t be discovered. It was an economic choice for me – I had to put myself second.”
After she graduated from college, Smith kept her personal and work lives separate and then commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Quartermaster Corps. The Quartermaster Corps works in logistics, assisting with supplies like fuel and water, but also the identification and retrieval of deceased military personnel. Following basic training at Fort Lee, Virginia, Smith’s first assignment was as a platoon leader in the 193rd Support Battalion at Fort Clayton, Panama. She later commanded the Logistic Support Detachment of Task Force 36 in Camino De La Paz, Costa Rica.
In 1996, Smith transitioned to the Army Reserve. She was assigned as a mobilization planner, and later became secretary to the General Staff of the 99th Regional Readiness Command in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania. Smith then served on the Army Staff and as an operations officer in the Office of the Chief of the Army Reserve at the Pentagon. Though Smith enjoyed her work, she was increasingly frustrated at having to hide her sexuality at work. She had met her partner Tracey Hepner in 2004 on a Caribbean cruise. While in a committed relationship with Hepner, Smith was unable to acknowledge her as her partner. In 2009, she decided to retire from the military but changed her mind after hearing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen discuss changes toward military LGBTQ+ personnel at a congressional hearing in 2010.
In October 2010, Smith deployed to Afghanistan as the Chief of Army Reserve Affairs at Bagram Air Force Base in Parwan Province as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. “I traveled all around Afghanistan while I was there and worked with problems that were unique to the Reserve. Some of them were pay problems, mobilization issues, etc.,” she explained in an interview for the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed in September 2011 while Smith was still deployed. After returning to the U.S., she married Tracey Hepner in March 2012 and was promoted to brigadier general. At the promotion ceremony in May 2012, Hepner attended and pinned on one of Smith’s stars. She became the Army’s first openly gay general officer in military history in August that same year.
“The fact that I was able to have my military family in the front row, there with me, supporting me in the role, following the tradition of participating with my dad promoting me was – it was just absolutely fantastic. I felt full, authentic and complete performing that ceremony with my family,” Smith shared in a 2012 NPR interview.
Following her promotion, Smith served as the commanding general of the 98th Training Division (Initial Entry Training) at Fort Benning, Georgia, as well as deputy commanding general sustainment in the Eighth Army, in Yongsan, South Korea. Smith retired in June 2021.
After leaving the military, Smith and her wife have been active in LGBTQ+ and Veteran rights events. Hepner co-founded the Military Partners and Families Coalition, which supports LGBTQ+ military partners and their families.
“There’s a journey that takes place between first acknowledgement and being honest [with yourself],” Smith said of coming out in a 2021 article for the Army website. “People must find comfort and push back some of that internalized homophobia, and build a bit on the journey between honest and authentic. Now I feel very comfortable [living authentically].”
We honor her service.
Writer: Sarah Concepcion
Editors: Julia Pack, Brooke Wolfenbarger
Researcher: Kelly Wun
Graphic Designer: Kiki Kelley