As she knelt on the ground and pressed the headstone into the soft soil at Willamette National Cemetery in Portland, Oregon, Linda Campbell ran her fingers over the engraved letters of her wife's name: Nancy Lynchild. She traced the grooves marking the date of her passing: December 22, 2012. She gazed at the symbol above her beloved's name: a dancing Sandhill Crane.
"It was closure," Linda said about the stone-setting ceremony held on Tuesday, September 3 in honor of her wife. "We helped Nancy get to the end of this journey. And I know she's well on her way into the next journey. She needed to be laid to rest."
The ceremony served as a well-earned release for Linda Campbell, a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel who was partnered with Nancy for 17 years. After months of petitioning for Nancy to be buried in a military cemetery, Linda was finally placing the head stone on her wife's plot, surrounded by the people who made the day possible. Nancy Lynchild is the first-ever same-sex spouse of a veteran to be buried in a national military cemetery.
A National First, A National Triumph
In December 2012, when Nancy passed away after a 12-year battle with metastatic breast cancer, legally married same-sex couples were denied all of the federal protections of marriage. The so-called Defense of Marriage Act restricted the federal government from respecting marriages of same-sex couples like Nancy and Linda, who married in Canada in 2010. Because of DOMA, Nancy was not eligible for the medical care that the spouses of different-sex military veterans could automatically access, but more importantly to Linda, Nancy was not permitted to be buried in Willamette National Cemetery, where Linda's parents rest.
"Nancy didn't really care what happened to her physical body after she died," Linda said. "But I did care. I cared very much."
She vividly remembered how important Willamette was to her father, retired staff sergeant Gordon Campbell, whose wife of 62 years, Joyce, died in 2004. Gordon, devastated by his loss, found closure in the news that his wife could have her ashes buried at Willamette and that when he passed away, too, he could be laid to rest in the same grave with a shared headstone.
"I wanted to have the peace of mind that my dad did when he learned that Mama could be buried up there," Linda said. "He was in a depressed and low state when he lost her, and when the funeral home told him that she could be buried in honor of his military service, I saw a spark come into his eye. That news changed him. It gave him some peace and made him proud."
Linda's quest to have her wife buried at Willamette was a trying fight, and it wouldn't have happened were it not for her own perseverance and the support of many government officials. Through a complicated process that involved the advocacy of Oregon's Commissioner of Labor and Industries Brad Avakian, a line in the federal code allowing the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs to issue a waiver granting burial rights, and the support of Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, Linda received permission to bury Nancy at Willamette. (Photo)
The headstone that marks the space shared by Linda’s parents reads Together Forever. "That's what I wanted for Nancy and me," Linda said. "And that's what we will have."
Nancy and Linda also triumphed in their other campaign: to introduce a new choice for a symbol for headstones in national military cemeteries.
"There are about 50 approved symbols," Linda said, describing icons that adorn gravestones in these cemeteries - a cross, a Star of David, an eagle. "None of them really suited us," Linda said. So she worked with an artist friend to design a new emblem, and she requested approval from the Department of Veterans Affairs to introduce the new symbol. Her request was granted.
Linda decided on the Sandhill Crane, a bird that has come to represent the ability of a soul to move between worlds, realms, times, traditions, and elements. "It's the perfect symbol for Nancy," Linda said.
Just weeks after the authorization of Nancy’s emblem, another person preparing for the burial of a loved one selected the Sandhill Crane, too. "I'm so thrilled,” Linda said. “We want Nancy's Sandhill Crane to soar and then be joined by a flock. The flock is already beginning to form.”
Love for A Very Long Engagement
In June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Windsor v. United States that the central part of DOMA is unconstitutional. This summer, the DOMA ruling has been implemented broadly across many federal programs - including military veterans’ protections like burial rights. Soon, no same-sex military couple will be denied the honor of being buried together in a national cemetery.
For Linda, seeing the military and veterans’ protections extended to loving couples marks an enormous step forward. But for her, that's not the only reason that the Windsor v. United States decision was important. It was also important for her to see the plaintiff at the center of the case, Edie Windsor, take down DOMA.
Until December 2012, Linda wasn't that familiar with Edie Windsor's story - the story of how Edie fell in love with a woman, Thea Spyer, married her in Canada after over 40 years together, helped her through a years-long battle with multiple sclerosis, mourned her passing, and was then forced to pay $363,000 in estate taxes that she would not have had to pay if Thea were a man.
But in December 2012, Linda became very connected with Edie's story. That's when she and Nancy watched Edie and Thea: A Very Long Engagement, the 2009 documentary that chronicled Edie and Thea's life together.
"Edie and Thea reminded me so much of Nancy and me," Linda said. "The way they looked at each other. The way they loved each other. I could see in Edie's face the way she looked at Thea - I recognized the look that had surely been on my face when I looked at Nancy."
Nancy passed away just a few days after she and Linda watched A Very Long Engagement.
"It was the last movie we ever watched together," Linda said. "And after I lost Nancy, I watched that movie every night. That movie was the story of Edie and Thea - but in so many ways, it was the story of me and Nancy, too."
As she read more about Edie Windsor and watched as her legal challenge to DOMA was accepted by the Supreme Court, Linda decided to make the trek to Washington, D.C. to support Edie and stand up against DOMA with thousands of other marriage supporters. In March 2013, she was invited to speak on the steps of the Supreme Court about Nancy, honoring her wife and explaining why a DOMA victory was so essential. Watch her very moving speech:
She was also able to watch a brief section of the oral arguments in the Windsor case and watch as Edie spoke outside of the Court.
"She is, to me, the hero of our time," Linda said about Edie. "She had the courage to stand up, and she wouldn't let it go. And she won. She won for all of us. To shake her hand will be one of the great highlights of my life."
Linda will get her chance to meet Edie in a few months, when she goes on a vacation cruise featuring Edie as an honored guest. "It will be wonderful," Linda said.
Setting Her Sights on Oregon
Linda Campbell made history by winning the right to bury Nancy's ashes in a military cemetery. But even though they will someday be buried together in Portland, the state of Oregon still does not respect their marriage - or the marriages of any other same-sex couple.
Oregon's constitution includes an amendment, passed in 2004, that restricts the freedom to marry to different-sex couples. Now, Oregon United for Marriage, a coalition of business leaders, faith groups, civil rights organizations, and marriage supporters, is working to repeal the amendment and replace it with one that would expand marriage protections to couples like Linda and Nancy.
Linda said she will continue speaking out about why marriage matters until her home state of Oregon stands on the right side of history.
"Today, after all these years of suppressing who we are and trying to suppress our feelings, we're seeing our feelings being validated,” Linda said. “Our marriages are being validated. Our relationships are being validated through marriage. We can be proud. We can be honored. And that's what's going to happen here in Oregon. This matters deeply, and I will do everything in my power to help.”
Letters from Nancy: 'Love in Waiting'
At the stone-setting ceremony, the celebrant read a few passages from letters that Nancy wrote to Linda in 1995. For one month that year, Linda lived in Washington, D.C. testing out a new job while Nancy continued living in Oregon. "Every night that month when I went home, there was a letter from Nancy," Linda said. "On Monday there would be two letters because there was no Sunday post. They were about being separated by such a distance, and that at the end of this month, we would finally live our lives together."
The letters are a testament to the couple's lasting love for each other. They say so much about love, about loss, about the unknown, about real happiness, and about the bonds that keep us grounded throughout it all.
Linda has shared a selection of the letters from Nancy with Freedom to Marry:
* * *
How our future will unfold is a mystery. Love, hope, happiness and joy are the known aspects - where, when, and how are the unknown.
My heart is warm today. Wrapped in a thick, soft tapestry. Blended from the sight of you, the sound of you, the touch of you.
The sun is shining. The birds are singing. And all seems right with the world - except you are so far away. Waiting for you is a labor of love, knowing that each day brings us closer. Images of you, recalled from intimate moments we have shared, fuel my desire to be reunited.
These remembrances also make the waiting easier. They remind me what our future will be.
Come share this moment with me. Close your eyes. Feel the warm, friendly sun gently kiss your cheek. Breathe in slowly the dancing air. Feel your body respond to the relaxing rightness of the day. Now there are no boundaries of distance between us. We are sharing a moment - in a perfect day. A perfect day.
You are the woman of my dreams. Please hurry back to my reality as well.
There are no boundaries. There is no distance.