JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. (AFNS) --
(This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series. These stories focus on individual Airmen, highlighting their Air Force story.)
Before 2011, the “don't ask, don't tell” law kept many in the dark. If a service member was gay, they held on to that secret tighter than a tourniquet on the battlefield, or risked discharge.
According to Defense Department Directive 1304.26, issued in late 1993, military personnel were prohibited from discriminating against or harassing closeted homosexual or bisexual service members or applicants. At the same time, it barred openly gay, lesbian or bisexual persons from military service.
Shayna Engle, an Air Force inactive reservist and Pennsylvania native, joined the Air Force in 2008 and knows firsthand how much this policy affected those in the minority.
"When I joined the Air Force, 'don't ask, don't tell' was still very strongly in effect," Engle said. "My first real relationship with a woman was in tech school. It was hard because you're constantly being monitored and if someone caught you, your career would be over and you'd be ousted."
Staff Sgt. Jamie Engle, a 744th Communication Squadron cyber transport systems craftsman, was already assigned to then-Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, in 2009, when she assisted Shayna through her processing to her new assignment. The first time they spoke over the phone, Jamie had recently promoted to senior airman.
"What should've been a 15-minute call became a 2 1/2-hour conversation," Jamie said. "It felt like I was talking to a friend I hadn't seen in months."
Shayna said the couple went on to become closer. "As time went by, we learned we both liked each other as more than that,” she said. “I just fell head over heels in love with this woman."
Jamie, who enlisted in the Air Force in 2004, admits to feeling very anxious about being discovered for her true feelings.
"I tried to play the straight card for years by dating guys and keeping anyone from getting suspicious of me," Jamie said. "I felt so torn up and lonely inside for liking girls that I thought I could feel better if I was normal. I was trying so hard to be everything I thought my parents wanted for me. It was difficult to keep up appearances when I was upset about lying everyday about who I really am. I was depressed, in denial and drinking to forget my feelings."
During the course of their relationship, hiding their feelings for each other became a daily routine.
"We couldn't be ourselves unless we were behind closed doors," Shayna said. "We hardly even looked at each other at work because a lot of our coworkers also lived in the same area as us. We were afraid we weren't always going to be able to separate our private and professional lives."
Telling their parents about their relationship took a year before both women were willing to open up to other people.
"We didn't tell our parents for fear of how they'd react," Jamie said. "I first told my sisters for moral support. That was rough. Imagine the crippling fear you had as a child coming home from school and telling your parents you got in trouble. Now imagine holding onto that fear for years and being terrified of what would happen if anyone else knew. That's what it felt like to hide my sexuality from my family."
Shayna echoed this feeling.
"I guess that hardest part for any gay person is coming out," Shayna said. "Every gay person has that coming out story. Straight people don't have that issue of dropping this bombshell on your family and wondering if they'll still love and accept you for who you are. It took me years to finally say it out loud. My parents came to accept it, but there were growing pains. Yet, when it finally comes out, it feels good."
After a year and a half of dating in secret, Jamie proposed to Shayna, taking the next step in their covert relationship. Soon after this, Shayna received orders for Kunsan Air Base, South Korea.
"I knew immediately our relationship wasn't going to last," Jamie said. "I knew I would get orders for another base and Shayna would get orders for a follow-on base after Korea."
Shayna was initially more optimistic about this change in their relationship.
"I thought we could make it work, but about halfway through my tour, I saw that we couldn't make it last," Shayna said. "Maintaining a long-distance relationship is hard enough. It felt impossible when we had to hide it and deal with a 14-hour time difference."
After seeing the difficulty in keeping a secret relationship over the phone and on Skype, Jamie and Shayna ended their engagement. While apart, Jamie deployed to Afghanistan and Shayna made a new group of friends.
"These new friends showed me that even though I went through some tough times, I could be a normal person and work through my problems," Shayna said. "I remember thinking that there's nothing wrong with me, its society's perception of me that's wrong. That was a progressive moment in my life because I finally realized that I can be myself and not feel ashamed of who I was instead of who I was supposed to be."
In 2011, after a year in Korea, Shayna moved on to her new assignment at Tyndall AFB, Florida. There, she also started a new relationship with another female Airman. Shortly after the relationship began, however, her girlfriend was struck by a car and died from her injuries.
"I was devastated," Shayna said. "After taking time to grieve, and with tears rolling down my cheeks, I realized I still loved Jamie and wrote to her in Afghanistan, expressing my affection and apologized about not having realistic expectations about our engagement in the beginning when I was assigned overseas."
Jamie wrote back saying she felt the same way about Shayna and the two resumed their long-distance relationship while waiting to see each other once again.
During their time apart, the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010 was enacted, ending the policy on Sept. 20, 2011. Gay and bisexual service members could now openly serve without fear of punishment.
"When ‘don't ask, don't tell' was repealed, for everyone else it was just another day, like 'Oh, it’s OK now.' For me, it was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders and I could completely be myself," Shayna said.
In March 2012, the couple finally had their reunion when Shayna flew to Baltimore to welcome home Jamie from her deployment. The reunion was short-lived, and Shayna had to return to Tyndall AFB. Later that year, their relationship came full circle as Shayna proposed this time to Jamie.
"It was like she returned the favor. It felt more precious to me when I thought back on how there was a time when we weren't sure if we were meant to be a couple," Jamie said. "We loved each other, but we had our problems like anyone else. We fought, we had to learn that we could still be independent but could also lean on each other. All this was exacerbated by the fact we had to keep our problems a secret from the world for a while. But in the end, we saw what was most important to us and spending time apart forced us to mature and gain perspective."
After Shayna's assignment ended at Tyndall AFB in May 2013, she became a reservist stationed out of Dover AFB, Delaware, and moved back to Maryland to be with Jamie. They finally wed May 24, 2014.
"Being able to get married legally, after everything we'd been through, was one of the greatest feelings of my life," Shayna said. "With the laws changed, the culture shifted more to supporting our decisions to love who we love and a support group of friends and family that was there for us. The only thing that stopped us from making our relationship official was ourselves. We couldn't wait for the wedding."
It was a small ceremony with friends and family.
"We didn't make a deal about our marriage to other people," Jamie said. "We would casually bring it up in conversation, but we didn't make a spectacle of it."
They have yet to take their honeymoon; they are preparing themselves financially as Jamie works to get promoted to technical sergeant. Shayna is trying to get a reservist positon at Joint Base Andrews and they hope to have a child together in the next year.
"I married my best friend," Jamie said. "Our relationship now is like any other couple. We like staying in on weekends, trying new restaurants, playing with our dogs, we visit each other's families when we're not too busy with work and talk about our day when we get home."
Shayna added, "She's not just my wife. She relaxes me when I'm stressed, she keeps me going. She's my co-pilot."