It's a tradition at the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., that when a cadet becomes engaged to be married, the lucky man or woman's friends will announce the engagement to the entire corps in the wardroom at lunchtime, the one meal that all four years of students eat together. On Thursday, Dec. 5, the announcement was a little different. "Over the weekend, Cadet First Class Kaitlin Ward got down on one knee and proposed to her longtime girlfriend, Lauren Bloch. This is the first announcement of its type."
There was a brief moment of silence as the room realized the significance of the announcement — the first in the school's 137-year history — before the corps of cadets started cheering and whooping for their classmate and her fiancée, the latest couple who had met and fallen in love at the academy.
Ward, 22, from Saline, Mich., had never dated women before she came to the Coast Guard Academy. Bloch, also 22, from Littleton, Colo., had a steady girlfriend for two years in high school. However, under "don't ask, don't tell," being openly gay at a service academy was forbidden and could lead to expulsion.
"It was a weird dynamic," Bloch said, reflecting on her arrival at the academy in 2009. "Obviously people weren't open about their sexuality. It was kind of one of those known things: You didn't make a big deal about it and they wouldn't make a big deal about it. I never really encountered someone who was looking to turn people in for being gay." The small group of gay and lesbian cadets used a secret Facebook group to talk to and support one another.
Bloch quietly dated a few cadets during her first years at the academy, always aware that she could be kicked out under DADT. "Obviously you couldn't be open about it at school or out in public. I had no issue telling my close friends, but I could definitely see everything going downhill quickly if the wrong people got ahold of it."
Ward and Bloch first met when Ward, a freshman, was assigned to Bloch's company at the end of "swab summer," the academy's summer indoctrination training (USCGA cadets are divided into eight groups of 120–130 cadets). Ward would later move to another company, but their initial friendship grew over the next summer as they got to know each other better.
"We started out as friends, then became best friends as we developed more of a connection over time, and it just kind of just happened," Ward said. They started dating in September 2011, the same month that DADT was repealed.
"She was my first girlfriend. I knew I had these feelings before but I had never expressed them. At first I struggled with it — I only told my close friends, but it's such a small school that it soon became pretty evident that we were dating." It took some time, Ward said, "But I realized that this was who I was, I couldn't fight my feelings, I couldn't suppress myself, and our relationship kind of bloomed from there."
Bloch, who had hidden her sexuality for her first two years at the academy, savored the freedom that the repeal of DADT brought. "It was really nice knowing that there wasn't always somebody who could be watching you or out to get you. I could be open with my feelings however I wanted to. I could go on dates on weekends and be out in public with my girlfriend, knowing that I didn't have to watch every one of my moves."
Both cadets stressed that the environment at the academy had been incredibly welcoming when they became more open about their relationship. "There was a great reaction from everyone," Ward said. "I went to her formal and she came to my ring dance."
Following the repeal of DADT, the academy established the first official gay–straight alliance at a U.S. military service academy, the Spectrum Diversity Council, in December 2011. The two women became actively involved in the club and its activities; Ward is currently its president.
The repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act in June inspired the two women to begin seriously discussing the idea of getting married. "All summer we were wondering when [the decision] was going to come out," Ward said. "I was actually underway [on an active-duty ship] and didn't hear about it until Lauren emailed me." Bloch, who was stationed in New London at the time, said she remembers being incredibly excited to tell her girlfriend about all the federal benefits that same-sex couples in the military would now be eligible for. For example, couples in the Coast Guard who want to stay together must be engaged or married in order to apply for collocation — assignments in the same sector. This is the primary reason why so many seniors at the academy get engaged before graduation — so that they can stay with their boyfriend or girlfriend and not risk being given a two-year assignment on the other side of the country. Of course, until recently, the federal government did not recognize same-sex engagements or marriages. "If DOMA hadn't been repealed, we wouldn't have been able to apply for collocation," Ward said. "Ever since then it's been more realistic that [getting engaged] was something we could see happening in the near future."
"I decided in late September that I was going to do it, talked with a few of my friends at the academy, and got them to go shopping for a ring with me," Ward said. "They were surprised. Everyone thought she would be the one to ask." Ward decided to incorporate one Bloch's ideas into her proposal. Three months earlier, when she was underway on a container ship, Bloch had written out "52 Reasons Why I Love You" on a deck of cards and given them to Ward when she returned. The couple planned to celebrate Thanksgiving together in New York City, so Ward decided she would write out "52 Reasons Why I'm Grateful For You" on a deck of cards and propose on the last two cards.
"We got back to my place from Thanksgiving dinner and she gave me the deck of cards," Bloch said. "I was flipping through the cards and then I got to one that said, 'Spending this moment with you.' The next card, the last card said, 'The moment you said YES.' My brain didn't register and then I saw Kaitlin down on one knee." When Ward pulled out the ring, she didn't say anything for a few seconds. "I was really, really happy but my brain was freaking out," Bloch said. "I always assumed I would be the person to ask based on our personalities. It was a good surprise. I said yes."
The couple's families and friends have been incredibly supportive of them. When they posted their engagement on Facebook, Bloch said, the photo got hundreds of likes. Despite this, she was worried that her colleagues at the USCG station in New York might not be as approving. "I work with a lot of older people and I was a little worried about how these married guys were going to take it," Bloch said. "When word got out that I was engaged, or people saw the ring, the first thing everyone would say would be, 'Who's the lucky guy?' and I'd say, 'Oh, actually it's a girl.' It takes a while to register, but then everybody gets a big smile on their face and starts congratulating me. It's been so cool to see that. It's definitely a big shocker but for the most part everybody's been happy for us."
Back at the academy, Ward said, she's one of many cadets who has gotten engaged over the past few months. "A few people have said it was weird that the wardroom announcement mentioned that it was the 'first announcement of its type,' and asked, 'Why wasn't it just a normal engagement announcement?' Hopefully the reaction to our engagement will help more people to be open and out and comfortable at the academy."