RICHMOND, Va. –
Lt. Col. Alyssa Astphan grew up in a military family. Her father served, her uncle served, and before them, her Lebanese grandfather served in World War II with a local militia and both the French and British Armies. Continuing her family's legacy of military service always seemed like a given. From the time she knew about the concept of careers, she knew hers would be spent in the military.
As Astphan neared the end of her high school years, she started looking ahead to college. She wanted to attend a military college and settled on Norwich University in Vermont. In 2002, after four years of ROTC, she commissioned into the U.S. Army as an ordnance officer and from there, the military career took off. The Army sent her around the world and back again, to Korea and beyond, but after five years, Astphan made the difficult decision to leave the military. Her life had changed.
"I was done, I was ready to get out, in large part because 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' was still a thing," she said.
In 2005, through a local rugby team in Virginia, she'd met the woman who would eventually become her wife. In the early stages of their relationship, Astphan was sent to Fort Drum and then overseas for a deployment and still, the two made it work. While deployed, Astphan realized it was unfair to ask her partner, Theresa, to pick up and move wherever the Army sent her next without the benefits of being a military spouse. At the time, Theresa couldn't join a Family Readiness Group, didn't qualify for a dependent ID card. Plus, Astphan wondered, what if they had kids one day, how would that work?
"I realized my lifestyle was not compatible with military service," Astphan said. Her relationship wasn't the only factor, and she knows many other members of the LGBTQ+ community who did make it work, but for her, it didn't. "It just wasn't going to work for our family because we couldn't be a family in the eyes of the military."
As she out-processed from active duty, a career counselor recommended she consider joining the Virginia Army National Guard, at least for a year or two. If not, she'd be placed in the Inactive Ready Reserve, or IRR, for three years with a chance of being recalled. Service in the National Guard would allow for stabilization and, she hoped, it would ease the transition out of military life.
"As much as [military service] wasn't compatible with my life, it was still very hard to leave something that was my dream," she said, explaining that she joined the Virginia Army National Guard in 2007, as a captain. She quickly found that keeping her private life private was possible in the National Guard, something she'd found challenging while on active duty. There, she said, there's pressure for families to be part of the unit and involved in unit activities, which was hard for those families who weren't authorized by military policy. "In the Guard, it's not that it's easy, it's just that it's easier."
At the end of 2011, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," was repealed. By that point, Astphan was used to keeping her private life out of her professional life. In 2012, she started a new job with the Virginia National Guard's U.S. Property and Fiscal Office. She was also up for promotion to major.
"That event was where I was finally like, 'I'm not hiding my family anymore, I'm getting promoted to major in large part because of their support, so they should be there and people are going to have to deal with it,'" Astphan said of her promotion ceremony. For the first time in her military career, her wife and young daughter were able to come to a military event.
Astphan didn't give anyone any warning that her wife would be coming to her promotion ceremony. Her bosses were there, her former battalion commander, her peers. It was uncomfortable, she said, but she was about to be become a field grade officer and that achievement was something she could not have done without the support of her family. They needed to be there to share in her success.
"I thought maybe if I don't make a big deal about this, maybe they won't," she said about coming out. "Of course, they didn't because they're professional adults, but it wasn't an easy, flippant decision or process. It was scary."
A few years later, as a lieutenant colonel, Astphan would take command of the Virginia National Guard's Recruiting and Retention Battalion. In taking on that role, she became the first openly gay battalion commander to serve in the Virginia National Guard.
"Nobody sets out to be a first and I don't think I recognized the importance of being out fully," Astphan said, explaining that she came out for the sake of her family, so they could be a part of the organization and present at key events in her career. At the time, she didn't realize the impact that would have on others, that it would help other members of the LGBTQ+ community know that they're not alone in the organization, and that serving openly is an option. She also hopes it helps to normalize the diversity of families, that more people come to understand that not all families look the same. "That helps us create a more diversity-friendly organization and that helps us bring in people from more diverse backgrounds and that's a positive thing."
As a leader, Astphan realizes she's benefited from established rapport with her leaders, peers and subordinates.
"People knew me as an individual before they knew I was married to a woman," she said, explaining that she's been afforded many incredible opportunities in the National Guard, but that she worries about junior Soldiers and their ability to serve openly.
"I worry that that Soldier hasn't had the time to build up that equity like I have and then it's less ok for them, or they're somehow going to be disadvantaged," Astphan said. Polices toward serving openly as members of LGBTQ+ community have evolved, but Astphan says that's only a small part. "You can write a policy in five minutes, but what's really difficult is changing people's thought processes on what is and what isn't acceptable. For a long time, being part of the LGBTQIA+ community was grounds for being shunned from society, [.] and the fact remains that discrimination still exists and people still grow up and formulate opinions and ideas about people in the LGBTQIA+ community that are not positive and it can make it very difficult for people to be fully who they are and to be out."
That, Astphan said, is what makes LGBTQ+ Pride Month important.
"An opportunity where people can be proud of who they are instead of made to feel ashamed is important and we should celebrate that," she said.
Today, Astphan is the battalion commander of the Danville-based 429th Brigade Support Battalion, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, and works full time at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia. This summer, she and her wife will celebrate their 12th wedding anniversary.