A time to tell: JBA couple shares their journey
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 a Defense Department directive 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,” Shayna 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 in 2009 when she assisted Shayna Engle through her processing to her new assignment. The first time they spoke over the phone, Jamie Engle had recently promoted to senior airman.
“What should’ve been a 15-minute call became a two and a half hour conversation,” Jamie Engle said. “It felt like I was talking to a friend I hadn’t seen in months.”
Shayna Engle said the couple went on to become closer and they fell in love.
Jamie Engle, who enlisted in the Air Force in 2004, admits to feeling very anxious about having her sexuality discovered. And 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 Engle 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 – out of fear of telling their families and their reactions.
After a year and a half of dating in secret, Jamie Engle proposed to Shayna Engle, taking the next step in their covert relationship. Soon after this, Shayna Engle received orders for Kunsan Air Base, South Korea.
“I knew immediately our relationship wasn’t going to last,” Jamie Engle said. “I knew I would get orders for another base and Shayna would get orders for a follow-on base after Korea.”
Shayna Engle was initially more optimistic about this change in their relationship, but long-distance and hiding the engagement took it’s toll. The engagement was called off and Jaimie Engle deployed to Afghanistan while Shayna Engle made new friends.
After a brief relationship with another Airman who died after being struck by a car, Shayna Engle realized she still loved Jamie Engle and wrote to her in Afghanistan. The relationship resumed.
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 Engle said.
Their relationship came full circle as Shayna Engle pro- posed to Jamie Engle.
“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 Engle said. “In the end, we saw what was most important to us and spending time apart forced us to mature and gain perspective.”
After Shayna Engle’s assignment ended at Tyndall AFB in May 2013, she became a reservist stationed out of Dover AFB, Del., and moved back to Maryland to be with Jamie Engle. 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 Engle 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.They have yet to take their honeymoon; they are preparing themselves financially as Jamie Engle works to get promoted to technical sergeant. Shayna Engle is trying to get a reservist position at JBA and they hope to have a child together in the next year.
“I married my best friend,” Jamie Engle 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.”
Former Staff Sgt. Shayna Engle (left) and Staff Sgt. Jamie Engle, 744th Communication Squadron cyber transport systems craftsman (right,) pose for a photo.