LGBT leader, '87 grad shares her story at NCLS

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Veronica Ward
  • Air Force Academy Public Affairs
For one Academy graduate and leader within the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, the Air Force core values were a source of sustainment while she balanced her Air Force career with her sexual orientation prior to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

"Be true to yourself and be true with yourself to others," said Tricia Heller, a 1987 Academy graduate and executive director of Blue Alliance. Blue Alliance is a support network for LGBT Academy cadets, faculty and alumni.

From Blue Alliance rose Spectrum, a similar group focused on educating the cadet wing about matters pertaining to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and questioning community.

Speaking at the 2013 National Character and Leadership Symposium, Heller shared her story about remaining true to self and overcoming adversity to an audience of cadets and Academy staff.

As a cadet, Heller had a long battle ahead of her that would last nearly three decades and have nothing to do with flying planes or fighting in a physical war, she said. At the age of 19, Heller realized that she was gay.

"Flying missions as an aircraft commander wasn't as difficult as my internal battle," Heller said.

Heller, who came from a religious family, was a sophomore at the Academy when she realized her sexual orientation could jeopardize her career and relationship with her family. Knowing that she did not have an easy journey ahead of her, Heller focused on the value of Service Before Self, she said, and moved ahead with her career.

Throughout her time at the Academy, during pilot training, and assignments abroad, Heller could not breathe a word to anyone about her personal world. Her escape was flying, but her world got more complicated when she fell in love with another Academy graduate, Regina Brown.

"With that partnership I knew it was right (and) I was right, because I was willing to risk it all -- family, faith, career, financial security -- and I did," Heller said.

Heller married Brown and the two continued on with their careers, all the while preparing for the day they would have to choose between their careers or being true to themselves. Heller maintained her Air Force career in the Reserves and began law school, while Brown was accepted into medical school.

"We were preparing to transition to civilian careers if we needed them," Heller said. "But we were also still serving others."

With the core values leading the couple, time passed and the two graduated the same year.

"Time heals a lot of wounds and that time healed wounds with our families," Heller said. "Both families were at our graduation and were there in support of us."

Heller had a partner, family and a career to support her, but she remained faithful to her roots and continued serving in the Reserves. Despite keeping her personal life to herself, Heller would soon face a career-altering hurdle.

"The wing commander sat me down and told me that I could attain general in the Reserves, but there was only one space in my household configuration -- meaning maybe general really isn't attainable for me," Heller said.

After all she had accomplished, her career progression seemed to be reaching its end.
Heller's longtime advisor and professor, current Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III, wanted her to work with him again.

"It was difficult because he didn't know and I couldn't tell all of who I was," Heller said. "Telling him could have compromised his integrity. When I told him 'no,' I decided that I can't compromise my integrity to myself anymore, but I can still serve with integrity."

Heller decided to move back home to her home state of Colorado. However, switching to civilian life could not separate her from the military: she had served her country for 16 years as a commissioned officer and would continue to serve in another capacity.

After Don't Ask Don't Tell was repealed, Heller returned to the Academy. She became the executive director of Blue Alliance, a group that assists those struggling, and helps disconnected LGBT alumni return to the Academy, she said.

Heller returned to the Academy to let the cadets know that there was a support group available for them. What resulted was a brand new group: Spectrum.

"The mission of Spectrum is to provide a support network for gay, lesbian, bisexual, questioning and queer cadets and to educate the cadet wing on matters pertaining to the GLBQ community," said Cadet 3rd Class Lydia Hill, the cadet in charge of the group. "Spectrum is also in constant contact with the Blue Alliance in order to provide a smooth transition for the graduating cadets and their move into the active duty Air Force."

Hill said Spectrum provides support that wasn't available to Heller, or others with similar struggles, while she attended the Academy: resources for cadets struggling with their sexuality or who have just come out to their parents.

"We provide a safe space where cadets can be themselves," Hill said.

Heller and others like her faced daily challenges of maintaining a private life that didn't line up with the military of her time, she said, but change and progress has come to today's military.

"Last October I got to introduce General Welsh to Gina," Heller said. "He thanked me for letting him know all of me, after 29 years of knowing each other. That was the moment my Air Force career came full circle. I was completely known and accepted for who I am."