Air Force major reflects on‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,' cancer

WARNER ROBINS, Ga. (AP) — This was to be a celebratory spring for Alison Cruise.

The UNC Charlotte alumna learned last summer that the U.S. Air Force would promote her to major this May, and she was excited by the prospect of her 3-year-old daughter Shiloh pinning the new rank insignia on her uniform in a formal military ceremony full of pomp and circumstance followed by a party packed with loved ones.

But in early March, the coronavirus threat began picking up steam, prompting the base where she’s been assigned since last November — Robins in Warner Robins, Ga. — to begin sending high-risk personnel home. Then, on March 31, by which point the base had largely emptied following a number of confirmed cases, Cruise learned that she in fact was among those high-risk personnel: She was diagnosed with breast cancer.

On April 20, she had a double mastectomy. And on May 1, the day Cruise was officially promoted, she pulled on a uniform shirt that her wife Megan had cut open in the back (since she couldn’t yet raise her arms above her head) and went out on the front porch of their home in Bonaire for as formal a ceremony as they could muster.

“That ceremony that we do is really about celebrating your family,” she says, “so we had to get a picture of my daughter putting the rank on. It’s a must-have memory.”

No, it wasn’t quite how the 39-year-old Winston-Salem native and mother of three envisioned it. Yet (the cancer and the COVID-19 pandemic aside, of course) Cruise is as happy as she’s ever been, and feeling as positive as she’s ever felt about her Air Force career — which was launched by 9/11 but for years was “a constant struggle,” emotionally, due to the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

With Memorial Day and Saturday’s Armed Forces Day fresh on our minds, Cruise’s story underscores the fact that while all servicemen and women are making a sacrifice for their country, each individual’s sacrifice is unique — and hers is particularly powerful.

So here is the story of U.S. Air Force Major Alison Cruise’s journey over the past couple of decades, which she’s sharing here in her own words (edited for clarity and brevity):

I was at App State (Appalachian State University in Boone) on scholarship, running cross-country and track, going to school, and doing what I needed to do. But I didn’t know what I was about yet, you know? Anyway, on 9/11, as my college roommate and I were just watching that unfold on TV, it just was like, “I want to be a part of whoever gets to go punch them in the face.” Within the next day or two, I was like, “I don’t belong here. I need to go do this.”

I gravitated toward the Air Force because they seemed to be the most forward-thinking — and it was familiar to me, because my dad and my granddad were in the Air Force, too. So within a week I went and found a recruiter in Hickory, North Carolina. I basically just said, “If you can give me something that would keep me moving, and it keeps me outdoors, and near airplanes, that’s what I want to do.” She was like, “Sounds like aircraft maintenance. Sign right here.” By October, I had dropped out of school. By November, I had orders. I reported to basic training at Lackland (Air Force Base in Texas) in February of 2002.

After basic, I went to Sheppard (also in Texas) for technical training in avionics, then I was stationed at Kirtland in New Mexico working on sensors for C-130 Talons and MH-53J helicopters, then from 2004 to 2006 I was at Tinker in Oklahoma working avionics on AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control System, a mobile, long-range radar surveillance and control center for air defense). I just had a blast learning that whole time. But I struggled with, “Man, I really like what I’m doing — this is what feels right with every cell in my body ... but I’m also gay. And there’s a Department of Defense policy that says if anybody finds out that I am, I’ll lose this job.”

I always viewed it as this pressure cooker of emotions, because I was becoming more sure of who I was, and more sure of the fact that who I was was perfectly OK. In fact, it was awesome. It was something to be added to the conversation and not taken away. I just felt like, “We are keeping people in these little boxes. Not just me, but everybody. And you don’t get to the best solutions unless people are free to be who they are and how they are.” So I wrestled with that, and I had to wrestle with it privately, because I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. Ultimately, I wound up deciding I couldn’t continue to live these two separate lives. And I ended up deciding to leave.

I had a mentor at the time, he was a captain, who didn’t know anything about why I was struggling. He just heard that I didn’t want to re-enlist. So he pulled me aside and he was like, “I don’t know what your plan is, but you need to have one.” I just remember thinking, “Wow, he really cares that I do something with my life, specifically with the Air Force.” I told him I had decided to go (Air National) Guard, and go back home to North Carolina to finish school. And he said, “I will only accept that if you stay in touch with me, and you promise that you will try to get your commission as an officer after you finish your degree.” I said, “Alright.”

I was a traditional Guardsman: I was in school at UNC Charlotte full-time and working in Charlotte full-time, then I would come do my drill weekends with the Guard. The professors were great about accommodating my deployments, and UNCC’s coach was open to letting me run again, so I spent a season with the cross country and track teams. I graduated in 2009 with a degree in exercise science and I kept my promise by applying for my commission. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was still in effect, but at that point I knew that times were going to change. I just needed to be patient.

After I got commissioned, I was in tech training to become an air battle manager down in Florida, when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ended. So they called all the students into the auditorium, and I’m sitting there sweating. I didn’t know the commander’s personality, but man, he came in there, and he was very firm. He said, “You are crazy if you don’t think you’ve already been serving next to these wonderful human beings who just happen to be gay. It does not matter. You are still going to be willing to lay down your life for them if you always have. You’re just going to know about it now. And if you have a problem with that, there’s the door.” I just remember getting goosebumps.

My wife Megan and I, we were both at UNC Charlotte at the same time (she graduated in 2006), but we didn’t meet until 2011 when I was stationed at Robins. We met through a mutual friend in Atlanta at Pride — and she wanted nothing to do with me. So I just kept making excuses to be near her, and we became friends, and that was fine for awhile. But she still didn’t want to date me. Then I went to Germany for a few weeks with a friend of mine who was stationed there, and I didn’t talk to Megan while I was gone. When I got back, she called me and she said, “I think we do need to go on a date.” I was like, “Yessss! Not talking to you worked!” From that point on, we’ve been inseparable. ... We got married in 2014 in D.C. ... I carried our first child, Shiloh (born in March 2017), then she got pregnant and carried our twins (Scarlett and Eden, born in December 2018).

I was an instructor air weapons officer at Robins from 2011 to 2015, then they gave me the opportunity to go to Japan, where I eventually became an evaluator senior director in Okinawa. I came back to Robins in 2018 and found out last August that I was going to be promoted to major.

My promotion is an emotional thing for me. It feels like a culminating moment of over 18 years of ups and downs, learning from mistakes and successes, time away from the ones I love most, and some of the most impactful moments of my life. I have never celebrated a promotion, but Megan and I were going to go all out for this one. I’m retirement-eligible before my next chance at promotion, so this very well could be the last one for me. I hope not, but it could be. ... Then COVID hit.

Then on Shiloh’s third birthday (March 17) I went to go get a mammogram because I had a lump that had been bothering me. The radiologist that day looked at it and he was like, “That is not normal. You need to go get a biopsy now.” So two days later I was in another doctor’s office. On March 31st we got the results back that it was indeed cancer. I was referred to a breast cancer specialist, and he said, “Based on all the parameters of your cancer, all the biomarkers to it and your age and lack of family history, the safest thing is to take all the breast tissue.”

The wind got knocked out of my sails a little bit because, I mean, it’s my body. It’s not a hugely important part of my body, but I did nurse my baby girl with it. But I didn’t freak out. ... I spend more time thinking about my mortality when I fly. We fly on old airplanes. ... Dangerous things happen when you deploy. But cancer? No. ... And it was Stage 1. We are so lucky to have caught it early. Yeah, it was invasive, but they didn’t find any cancer in the lymph nodes, so I don’t have to do chemo or radiation, because there’s nothing to shrink. Since my cancer is receptive to estrogen and progesterone, I just have to take hormone treatment for the next 10 years, in order to decrease my chances of recurrence.

As for the front porch ceremony, Shiloh won’t remember it, and she won’t remember how it felt. But we will. We know that my career has been part of what makes her future freedom and potential possible and endless. We know it is going to be part of our kids’ stories that makes them brave, resilient, and unstoppable. I also feel the intense gratitude of knowing I didn’t get here on my own. I got here on the backs of other women in service before me. I got here with the unending support of family and friends through every new military training phase and every deployment. I got here because my wife loves me enough to let me pursue this wholeheartedly and unapologetically. It doesn’t matter if I got to host the normal ceremony and have everyone gathered together, or if it was just the five of us on the front porch. The meaning is the same. It’s deep and emotional, and full of pride