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Falling In Love During The Era Of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

Mike Rudulph (left) and Neil Rafferty.
Courtesy of Mike Rudulph
Mike Rudulph (left) and Neil Rafferty.

Mike Rudulph was 20 years old when he joined the U.S. Marine Corps. He served during the era of "don't ask, don't tell," deploying to Iraq in 2003. Soon after he returned home from his first deployment, he logged onto the Internet and met Neil Rafferty.

"By the end of the week, we were saying 'I love you' over the phone," Rudulph, 40, said to his now-husband, Rafferty, 35, at StoryCorps in Birmingham, Ala.

The first time they actually got to see each other, they kissed in Rudulph's parents' front driveway — far enough away from the house so Rudulph's parents couldn't see them — before driving out to the woods.

"And we laid in the back of the truck and looked at the stars," Rudulph said. "I'd fallen in love with you. You had fallen in love with me. I mean, this is perfect."

Then, Rudulph found out he was getting deployed back to Iraq — in a month. They decided to make the most of their time left and spent "every single day together," Rafferty said.

"And then it was that last night that we had together," Rudulph said. "And I was leaving that very next day and I packed my bags. And I remember sitting in the bed, crying in my mother's arms, not able to tell her exactly why I'm crying."

Until its repeal in 2010, the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy banned LGBTQ people from serving openly in the armed forces. So when Rudulph was in Iraq, Rafferty would send him letters and sign them as "Lisa," just in case they were ever found.

One day, it had been about three weeks since Rudulph had called, when Rafferty broke down and told his mom about their relationship.

"She was like, 'Why are you so worried about him?' And I said, 'Cause I love him,' " Rafferty said. "That was when I came out to my mother. And she just held me and said that she knew already. That we weren't nearly as sneaky as we thought we were."

When Rudulph finally returned home, Rafferty told him he didn't want him going to Iraq alone again.

"I said, 'Well, I'm sorry. If I get the opportunity, I'm going,' " Rudulph remembers. "And then you said, 'I know, and I want to go with you.' So you joined the Marines for me, man."

"We were both in the infantry," Rafferty said. "We were both in the same unit."

Rudulph and Rafferty never served in Iraq together, or in a combat zone, but they did serve overseas together while "don't ask, don't tell" was still in place.

"And we got through it with only a few people catching wind of it," Rudulph said. He left the Marine Corps after that.

"I was so sick of living a lie as a Marine. I was ready to bust out of the closet with rainbows and glitter, and that's where we are now," Rudulph said.

In 2018, Rafferty ran for office in Alabama and won — making him the first openly gay man to be elected to the Alabama Legislature. That same year, the couple eloped. And after the pandemic, they plan on celebrating their marriage with their fellow Marines in attendance.

"We are what we are because of our insistence on being with one another," Rafferty said.

"Just two imperfect people refusing to give up on each other and I can't wait to see where we go with this life," Rudulph said.

Audio produced for Weekend Edition by Kamilah Kashanie. Adapted for the Web by NPR's Christianna Silva.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at

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Kamilah Kashanie (she/her) is the host of the StoryCorps Podcast. Kashanie's love for radio is rooted in her desire to understand more about what makes us who we are. As a storyteller, she's committed to starting conversations to make lasting changes in underserved communities, and to craft narratives that help give voice to individuals who would not otherwise have a platform to tell their stories. She's also a graduate of the Transom Audio Storytelling Workshop and the host of Feeling My Flo, a reported podcast about menstruation from PRX and Lantigua-Williams & Co.