TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — On the morning of Sept. 21, 2011, Justin Hickey didn’t have to hide anymore.
At the time, Hickey was a captain and an operations officer with the 60th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Travis AFB, California. That morning, however, he was a gay man who no longer had to conceal his identity thanks to the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which barred lesbians, gays and bisexuals from serving openly in the United States military.
At the close of a meeting that morning, Hickey said a chief master sergeant told attendees, “Remember everyone, now you have to treat the gays right.” Hickey decided this was the moment to make his reveal.
“I said, ‘Yeah, that’s right. You never know, Chief, who might be gay, like, you never know, your ops officer,’” Hickey said. “You could’ve heard a pin drop. … I was feeling liberated because I could finally say something without fear of losing my career.”
Indeed, Hickey kept his career. Nearly a decade after his first tour with Travis’ 60th AMXS, he returned to the same squadron – this time as a lieutenant colonel and its commander.
Unlike Hickey, many other military members were unable to fulfill their time in service. More than 12,000 service members were discharged during the 17-year observance of DADT according to a 2008 Associated Press report.
Concealing his identity during DADT began from the moment Hickey began his path to service. Hickey said his time at the Air Force Academy in the early 2000s taught lessons in and out of the classroom.
“The Air Force Academy was good training in how to blend in because nobody would just assume that I was gay,” he said. “You kind of learn how to assimilate.”
Hickey employed numerous strategies to keep details about his personal life cloudy. One was a mutually beneficial friendship with Lyndsey Ballinger, a lesbian and fellow officer whom he met at Sheppard AFB, Texas, during training in the mid-2000s.
Ballinger, now a lieutenant colonel and squadron commander with the California Air National Guard, said gossip about them started during training. To conceal their truths, the pair was happy to let imaginations run wild.
“This really was when everyone was like, ‘ooh, you guys are dating,’ and we were like, ‘Sure!’” she said. “In this case, it was beneficial for both of us.”
The two reconnected in 2009, when Hickey came to Travis after assignments in Germany and South Korea as a maintenance officer with the F-16 Fighting Falcons.
“Everybody thought that we were dating,” Hickey said. “So we just let them think it. When (‘don’t ask, don’t tell’) went away, everybody had their ‘aha’ moment, and we both laughed about it.”
It was during this period of time, the reconnection with Ballinger and prior to the DADT repeal, that Hickey struggled with his decision to stay in the Air Force.
“I think he struggled with it because he’s an incredible officer and had a bright future, but didn’tIt was during this period of time, the reconnection with Ballinger and prior to the DADT repeal, that Hickey struggled with his decision to stay in the Air Forcesee a path in how to be true to himself and also serve,” Ballinger said.
Hickey said it was vital under DADT to maintain a veil of secrecy about his personal life in order to preserve his professional life.
“Your work life and your social life had to be very separate or else people would catch on,” he said. “The biggest impact of that is you can't really be genuine because it's a huge part of your life that you can't share with your friends.”
Ultimately, Hickey chose to stay in the Air Force.
“I wanted to live a fully genuine life,” he said. “And then, once (DADT) was repealed, I did a lot of soul searching and decided that I wanted to see how it all panned out after the ban was lifted. And I'm really glad that I did.”
After his first stint at Travis AFB, Hickey’s career took him to Hurlburt Field, Florida, where he met firefighter Brett Buckland. The two became a couple and, later, married in 2017.
Hickey said the 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage was a bigger deal for him than the repeal of DADT. The decision allowed Buckland, a civilian captain firefighter, to permanently change stations with him as his spouse.
Buckland, who also serves as a key spouse mentor for the 60th AMXS, said their relationship dynamic is just like any other couple.
“It’s only going to be as successful as the work you want to put into it,” he said. “We have the same type of arguments, same petty stuff. It doesn’t make any difference in those regards. It’s about respecting each other, about keeping it lively.”
After Hurlburt, Hickey commanded a maintenance squadron at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, before returning to Travis AFB for his current position. Since their re-assignment here, Buckland also joined Team Travis through the base’s fire department June 22.
As an O-5 and a squadron commander, Hickey said he realizes for some Airmen he may be their sole connection to the queer community, a responsibility he has grown to accept.
“It was difficult for me, because I never considered myself to be an activist,” he said. “But then, as my troops approach me and tell me how grateful they were to have a gay officer in the squadron, over time, I realized the importance for people who are gay in the military to have somebody that looks like or represents them in the same way as other minority groups. I think it's important that they're represented at all levels of the Air Force.”
Ballinger said she is appreciative of the open, authentic lives they can both live now.
“It’s wonderful,” she said. “This is the first time we’ve been stationed (in the same area where) people understand the relationship between us. Obviously, we’ve always been close, probably because of DADT. We didn’t have a lot of people we could trust. … Now everyone is able to see a complete picture. He has his husband. I have my wife. We don’t have to pretend that it’s something that it’s not and get to lean into everything that it is. It’s a really awesome friendship.”
Hickey looks back a decade ago and sees a young captain questioning his path in the Air Force due to the strains created by DADT. He is appreciative of the life he has now, he said.
“I knew that if I was going to stay in the Air Force that the cost of keeping my private life a secret would be too much to bear,” he said. “I couldn't see myself as a squadron commander unless (‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ repeal) were to happen. Fast forward eight years later, me and Brett hang out with Lyndsey and her wife, Sharon. … To think about how things were in 2011, living in secret, and now we can be who we are and have families that we want. (It) has been a dream come true.”