By Mrs. Melissa K Buckley (Leonard Wood)June 12, 2014
Halfway through her military career, during the era of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," a Fort Leonard Wood Soldier realized she was gay. Now, as a command sergeant major and married, she is revealing her journey to living openly in the Army as a gay Soldier.
"As a sergeant major, I was terrified to tell people. I had not said anything openly until I came here to Fort Leonard Wood. During 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' I didn't want to tell somebody I was gay then put them in the situation where they would have to tell on me," said Command Sgt. Maj. Teresa Duncan, 787th Military Police Battalion. "I don't want to be labeled as the first gay sergeant major -- because I'm not."
Duncan has gone from keeping her personal life in the shadows to preparing her speech for the first Fort Leonard Wood Pride Month celebration luncheon later this month.
She said she plans on talking about her 23 years as a military police officer in the Army. One of the most important moments was the first time she introduced her spouse, Maria Teresa Abeleda, as her wife to another Soldier.
"I was at my last duty station when it came out that we could actually tell. It was a difficult situation. Now, do we go back and tell everybody? My real friends already knew -- they didn't ask, and I didn't tell," Duncan said.
Her Family and friends came to their wedding last November, but Duncan said it was still awkward to talk about at work.
"When I recently got to Fort Leonard Wood, I have to say I was terrible at first. I didn't introduce her at all. This is the home of the regiment, and I ran into so many people that I hadn't see in so long," Duncan said. "I am not ashamed of her; I just hadn't ever introduced her as my wife. It's like how do I start now?"
The secrecy disappeared one day when Duncan and Abeleda were shopping at the Exchange.
"About a month after we got here, we ran into the regimental command sergeant major, who I respect so much, and it just came out. I introduced her as my wife. I didn't know how he was going to take it, but he gave her a hug and welcomed her to post. It was great," Duncan said.
Her wife, Abeleda, agreed.
"Here, it feels different. It's great. It's like we are free. I finally feel accepted. It feels good to have the support," Abeleda said.
"Here all of the spouses get together, and it makes me feel welcome. We shot guns (at a spouses event)-- that was fun -- and sometimes we get together and eat," she added.
Duncan said it makes her feel good to know her wife has a support system she can count on.
"It's been amazing. She has finally got to experience the military side of life. It's beautiful," Duncan said.
Duncan said coming back to Fort Leonard Wood this year has been completely different than when she was here 12 years ago as a drill sergeant.
"Fort Leonard Wood is amazing about Families. Fort Leonard Wood has welcomed my wife with open arms," she said.
When Duncan was asked to speak at the first-ever Fort Leonard Wood Pride Month, she said she was excited and nervous.
"We were told for so long that we can't say anything during 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' and then it changed to tell everybody. It's a little different to get used to," she said.
"I feel like there is some concern about the observance. People are like, 'I thought everything was going to be normal, and now we are having a month for you guys.' It's really not that way. We just want to get information out," Duncan said.
Duncan was halfway through her Army career when she said it became obvious to her that she was gay, and she hopes sharing her experience will educate others.
"When I came in the Army, it was during the time when you could not be gay. I was so Army focused, even though I had some feelings I just kind of passed them off. Back then, it was looked at like a disease or a bad thing," Duncan said.
"I think the biggest thing to me is to understand we are human, and we are just normal people. We have been in the Army for a long time," she added.
Duncan said she also hopes talking about her life will help other gay service members to feel more confident about themselves. People are ostracized for every thing from their hair color to the way they talk, and Duncan said being gay isn't any different.
"For Soldiers who haven't came out yet or are afraid to speak about it, know that it's OK. All of those scary assumptions -- like somebody might not treat me right. Is that going to happen? Yeah. But that is with everything else. We are all different," Duncan said.
"You have to trust your friends. If you are going to start telling people, I would start with your friends. We assume that we are the only ones who know, but believe it or not -- they know. It's out of respect that they aren't saying anything," she added.
Duncan said she will make herself available to answer questions.
"I will answer any questions. Any service member can come to me. I am an open book. If I don't have the answer you are looking for, I'll find it," Duncan said.
For more information about the Pride Month luncheon, call 573.596.0601.