After she met her wife in 1997, Ashley Broadway-Mack just wanted a quiet life, playing soccer and taking care of a couple of dogs.
Today, their soccer-playing days are behind them, though they have the two dogs — and two kids to boot. And Broadway-Mack, whose relationship has seen both the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and gay marriage legalized nationwide, is also leading an organization that advocates for LGBT troops and their families.
Broadway-Mack, who worked for years as a teacher, has been the president of the American Military Partner Association since 2014. When she began her relationship with Army Lt. Col. Heather Mack, she was anything but an advocate.
“This sounds so horrible — so like 1950s, ’60s — but I understood my place,” Broadway-Mack said. “I totally respected Heather’s career, and I knew she was an excellent officer, so I didn’t want to do anything to ruin that or to have her discharged under ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ or whatnot, so I just kind of played the part.”
The two met when Mack was stationed at Fort Benning, Ga., when they played on the same recreational women’s soccer team.
Broadway-Mack said she didn’t reflect too much on what a closeted relationship under military law would be like until Heather got orders to relocate in 2001.
At that point, Ashley needed to decide not only whether to uproot her life, but also whether she wanted to do so while hiding the true nature of her relationship with Mack. Ultimately, she followed Mack as the lieutenant colonel was stationed in places including Richmond, Va., Houston, and even South Korea, claiming that they were friends or roommates.
Along the way, Heather was investigated three times over friendships with female colleagues — twice informally and once officially — but never because of her relationship with Ashley.
It wasn’t until they started talking seriously about having children that Broadway-Mack got angry at the law.
At the time, in 2009, Mack was at Fort Bliss, Texas, and the couple decided she should carry their children so they could get military benefits.
To get rights to the children, Broadway-Mack jumped through hoops such as having Mack name her as the guardian of the children in her will and being named as the children’s nanny by the military to get access to the base if the children needed to be there.
“At that point, it really started to kind of piss me off,” she said. “We have the means of going out and hiring a lawyer. Granted, we don’t take a vacation for a year, but we can go and pay a couple of grand to make sure that we’re somewhat protected. But a sergeant can’t do that. A specialist can’t do that.”
In 2010, when talk of repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” began to grow, Broadway-Mack began researching online and found the Campaign for Military Partners, a tiny support group of couples around the country that stayed mostly underground. A few members reached out to Pentagon officials about changing its policy, but not Broadway-Mack.
In the fall of 2011, when the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” finally took effect, the group became fully public and renamed itself the American Military Partner Association (AMPA). The organization turned its focus to reaching out to the media to tell stories of gay service members and their families, as well as issues such as the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
Two events pushed the organization to the “next level,” Broadway-Mack said.
In October 2012, a female soldier was killed in Afghanistan, and her wife was not recognized by the Pentagon or Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for honors or bereavement benefits.
“I was at the funeral, and it was like she wasn’t even there. There was no recognition of her. She wasn’t given the flag at her death,” Broadway-Mack said. “That was one of those — I’m going to get a little emotional — that was on those moments where I knew I had to step up my advocacy because that could have been me sitting there and that could have been my child sitting beside me and us not having any recognition as a family.”
A few months later, Broadway-Mack tried to join the spouses club at Fort Bragg, N.C., and was denied because she didn’t have a military ID, a consequence of DOMA. The story exploded in the press, and she was eventually let in.
DOMA was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013, but the AMPA was still hearing about veterans’ families being denied benefits in states where gay marriage was illegal. In 2014, just months before Broadway-Mack took over the group, the AMPA sued the VA, a case that become moot once the Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage in 2015.
More recently, the AMPA fought to get the Defense Department to lift its ban on transgender troops serving openly, again by telling the stories of the affected families. The Pentagon lifted the ban this past summer.
After raking in wins under former President Barack ObamaBarack ObamaPoll: Most Republicans believe Trump's wiretap claim Key conservative rep on healthcare plan: 'Let’s get out those regulations’ Trump climate move risks unraveling Paris commitments MORE, the AMPA is hunkering down for uncertain times under President Trump.
Since the inauguration, the AMPA has lost contact with the White House and the Pentagon, Broadway-Mack said. She attributes that both to jobs not being filled yet and to being purposefully ignored.
Still, the group has been pleased so far with Defense Secretary James Mattis, particularly when he said during his confirmation hearing he wouldn’t reinstate bans on LGBT troops.
Broadway-Mack’s current fight is against Trump’s reversal of Obama’s guidance allowing transgender children to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with, and the Pentagon’s decision to do the same for its schools.
Right now, the organization is in the process of reaching out to military families to see how the policy reversal has affected them. Broadway-Mack said she hasn’t yet heard of military children being denied bathroom use, but she remains in the communication with affected families.
Looking back, Broadway-Mack said she was “almost too complacent” before last year’s presidential election.
“I had planned on resigning from the organization,” she said. “And then when the election happened, I partly wanted to say, ‘Oh, I’m done.’ But I knew we had members from the early days who looked upon me, looked to me as kind of their leader, as their voice, as someone that’s not afraid to speak up and to fight for them, so I knew that I would have to stay on.”