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Airman serves with pride, joins Air Force after "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

Airman 1st Class Leslie Wilson demonstrates cleaning her tools at the David Grant United States Air Force Medical Center dental clinic earlier this year. Wilson, a lesbian, entered the service after the 2011 repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Wilson is a 60th Dental Squadron dental technician. (U.S. Air Force photo/Nick DeCicco)

Airman 1st Class Leslie Wilson demonstrates cleaning her tools at the David Grant United States Air Force Medical Center dental clinic earlier this year. Wilson, a lesbian, entered the service after the 2011 repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Wilson is a 60th Dental Squadron dental technician. (U.S. Air Force photo/Nick DeCicco)

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AFNS) -- (This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series on AF.mil. These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)

Between sips of an iced coffee, Airman 1st Class Leslie Wilson, a 60th Dental Squadron dental technician here, talks about her life.

She talks about her childhood in Tennessee, going to college on a soccer scholarship and following in her father's footsteps by joining the military.

However, she also discusses candidly that she is a lesbian, serving in the U.S. Air Force. 

It's a conversation that couldn't have taken place even three years ago. For 17 years, American armed forces utilized the policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which prohibited service members from serving openly.

In September 2011, DOD officials repealed the policy, allowing Wilson to entered basic training one year later.

Though Wilson knew she was homosexual since her freshman year of high school -- Dec. 8, 2004, to be exact, she said -- she spent the next few years hiding that truth from most of her friends and family because of their beliefs.

"I would lose my breath," she said, thinking about her years in the closet. "The dark parts of you that you're hiding, it eats away at you."

Months after leaving school and moving home, Wilson, then 21, decided to stop hiding. She came out to her family, an experience she called "terrifying."

"I was tired of lying to them," she said. "I'm a very honest person, so lying to your family and closest friends makes you feel guilty and it slowly kills you inside, so to speak. ... You get to the point when you meet someone and your love for them means more than the fear of your deepest secret."

Not long after coming out to her family, Wilson signed up for the Air Force. With a father and brother-in-law who served in the military as well as a brother in Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, she had her family's backing.

"Since my dad was prior service, it was easy for us to talk about it because he had been through what I was going to go through," Wilson said.

During basic training, Wilson kept her sexuality quiet, although she eventually confirmed it to her closest fellow trainee. She said her friend told her it made her "so much cooler now."

Wilson entered the Air Force in the open general category, meaning she would land in whichever career field the service required additional manning. After her choices narrowed to aerospace medicine or dentistry, she picked the one that sounded more desirable.

"I didn't want to be in people's mouths, but there's no choice," the dental technician said with a laugh.

Later, in technical school, her perspective changed. As Wilson learned more about dental health, she began to find the subject intriguing. She said now the first thing she notices about people is their teeth, a habit she joked can be off putting.

"I'm an optimist, so I look for the silver linings in everything," Wilson said. "Working in the Advanced Education General Dentistry section of the clinic allows me to see so many different things and learn so much."

Coming into the service after the repeal of DADT has given Wilson the freedom to live openly and she said her peers have been receptive.

"Everybody has been great about it," she said. "If I come across someone who doesn't agree with my lifestyle, I brush it off."

Wilson said the hardest part about serving her country is the distance from her Tennessee family, with whom she speaks regularly.

Wilson's story about herself and her sexuality parallels a time of changing social norms for both the nation and the armed forces. Last summer, for example, Chuck Hagel became the first sitting secretary of defense to attend a Pentagon Pride event.

"Gay and lesbian service members and LGBT civilians are integral to America's armed forces," Hagel said. "Our nation has always benefited from the service of gay and lesbian Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Coast Guardsmen and Marines. Now they can serve openly, with full honor, integrity and respect. This makes our military and our nation stronger, much stronger."

Wilson sees herself playing a part in strengthening the nation for years to come.

"I love the Air Force," she said. "I see myself making it a career."

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