Among the loved ones mourning the death of Air Force Maj. Adrianna Vorderbruggen is her wife, Heather, and their young son, Jacob.
Vorderbruggen, one of six U.S. troops killed Monday in Afghanistan, was remembered as much for her advocacy as her service in the military. She spent years working to repeal “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” the policy that demanded gay troops’ silence. She died one day shy of the five-year anniversary of its repeal.
When their son was born, Vorderbruggen, still restrained by “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” could not tell anyone about his impending birth. She had to guess when to take time off to coincide with her birth. To the military at the time, she was not married; at best, she had a partner.
On Wednesday, Heather and Jacob can go to Dover Air Force Base and watch the solemn ceremony welcoming of their war hero, not in the shadows in which they lived through much of her career, but openly, as her family.
Her death comes just weeks after the U.S. military opened all combat positions to women. It is hard to say definitively that Vorderbruggen was the first openly gay servicewoman to be killed in action as the military does not keep such statistics. Moreover, it is hard to define what is open service, as several members of the military have died open to their friends and comrades—but not to their commanding officers.
But Vorderbruggen is believed to be the first-active duty, openly gay, female service member to die in combat. She also is first the first openly gay Air Force officer to die in combat. At least two openly gay female members of the National Guard have died while serving.
Regardless, the way the military reacted to her death spoke to progress it has made since the signing of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal exactly five years ago. Both LBGT advocates and military members once opposed to the repeal saw her not as a first but an equal among those who died along side her.
They said they were grateful for what she did to bring change, and mourned the loss of a comrade.
A friend of Vorderbruggen and her family told The Daily Beast that the Air Force was treating her wife and family “wonderfully,” a remarkable transformation for a force that once reluctantly embraced her as military spouse.
“Many LGBT troops have given their lives in service to our country. Thanks to the repeal of DADT, their families will be honored instead of hiding in the shadows. This is a tragedy for any family, and that’s why it is so important that we as nation embrace their loved ones and that we remember them for who they really were,” Sue Fulton, an army veteran and president of Servicemembers, Partners, and Allies for Respect and Tolerance for All (SPARTA), told The Daily Beast. “This is why we continue to fight for our transgender service members as well.”
Vorderbruggen and her wife, Heather Lamb, were married in June 2012, less than two years after the repeal. They publicly celebrated their marriage.
Tracey Hepner first met Vorderbruggen while they worked behind the scenes as partners of those who could not openly serve. They traveled together to the White House in 2011, one year after the repeal, to talk about how the military was adapting to change. Hepner is married to the first openly gay female general, and they were leading the charge for change.
“Heather and Adrianna were one of the first partners of the military partner coalition. And we are just devastated,” Hepner told The Daily Beast.
Hepner said Vorderbruggen understood that she was challenging conventional thinking and the risk associated to it. But to Vorderbruggen, it was another form of service to the country.
“Both Adrianna and Heather are extraordinarily strong and very proud of their family. They wanted to make a difference,” Hepner said.
Vorderbruggen was one of the uniformed officers in the saber arch at Hepner’s wedding, a job usually reserved for men. It was an outward display of an internal victory inside the military.
Vorderbruggen was one of six troops killed Monday when a suicide bomber on a motorcycle detonated himself while the troops were on patrol outside Bagram Air Base in eastern Afghanistan. It was the deadliest day for the U.S. military in Afghanistan in 18 months, in what was supposed to be the waning days of the war. The military has yet to release details of the incident but members of the Taliban told The Daily Beast they lured the troops outside the base to launch the attack.
Detective Joseph Lemm, 45, a New York police detective serving in the Air National Guard, was also killed in the attack. Air Force Sgt. Peter Taub, son of Washington-area restaurateurs, is believed to have died in the strike as well.
On Tuesday, the military identified those killed. In addition to Vorderbruggen, 36, Lemm and Taub, 30, those killed were:
Staff Sgt. Michael A. Cinco, 28, of Mercedes, Texas. He was assigned to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, 11th Field Investigations Squadron, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas.
Staff Sgt. Chester J. McBride, 30, of Statesboro, Georgia. He was assigned to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Detachment 405, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.
Staff Sgt. Louis M. Bonacasa, 31, of Coram, New York. He was assigned to the 105th Security Forces Squadron at Stewart Air National Guard Base, New York.
There are roughly 9,800 U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan.