‘Found by Companion’
Steven Rains & Don Condit • Fort Worth, TX
This story was originally published in December 2014.
Just over a year ago, on September 3, 2013, the United States Department of Defense started officially recognizing legal marriages between same-sex couples and began issuing military IDs to same-sex spouses of U.S. veterans and service-members.
Don Condit, a U.S. veteran, was thrilled. “He wanted to be the first in line at the Fort Worth base so I could get the first ID,” his husband Steven Rains remembered. “So we went at 7:30 in the morning.”
Every time we would go anywhere, he would say, ‘Show them your ID, show them your ID!
Indeed, Don and Steven were the first to show up to the Fort Worth base, and Steven got his ID. Don was beyond excited – after serving in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, he was proud that his husband was finally able to have a military ID that reflected the love and commitment they shared. “Every time we would go anywhere, he would say, ‘Show them your ID, show them your ID!’” Steven laughed.
The couple then went to the Department of Veterans Affairs and added Steven as Don’s dependent. For a few years, Don had been receiving a pension since being put on permanent disability after exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam, which led to the development of multiple myeloma. The couple, assuming that Steven would always be able to share in Don’s pension, went back home, optimistic that, although their marriage was not respected in the state of Texas, they would be protected should anything happen to Don.
But just 19 days after celebrating Steven’s new military ID, the unthinkable happened.
Don had been feeling a lot better after treatments for his multiple myeloma, and the couple was walking to their truck on one of the first days of Autumn – September 22, 2013. The air was brisk that day, Steven remembered. “We were walking to the truck, laughing and talking. He said, ‘It won’t be long until we’re pulling out our winter coats.’ And the next thing I knew, he was on the ground.”
It took Steven a moment to register what was happening: He thought that Don had simply fallen over.
But very quickly, Steven realized that it was much more serious than a trip – “I said his name, and he didn’t respond. I rolled him over and saw that his eyes were open, just a vacant stare, and then it all happened so quickly: I called 911 and I tried to take over breathing for Don and I had the phone in my hand and they seemed to have someone out there immediately. They seemed to be there in no time at all.”
By the time they arrived at the hospital, Don had passed away, a result of a rare complication with the medication he was taking to treat his multiple myeloma.
Later, Steven would reflect that in the midst of his shock and panic, the EMTs that picked Don up were remarkably respectful. “At the hospital, I told them he was my husband, and it was no problem at all,” he said.
At the funeral home, Steven was also met with respect and kindness. However, when the funeral home received Don’s death certificate, it was clear there was a problem: It listed Don as single – not as married to his husband Steven. Because of the constitutional amendment in Texas denying the freedom to marry to same-sex couples, the state ignored the couple’s 5-year marriage (and 31-year partnership) for the death certificate.
Just one line on the death certificate peripherally mentioned Steven: “Found by companion.”
It was just very cold. It felt like the state of Texas was knowingly falsifying his last legal document.
“It was just very cold,” Steven said. “It felt like the state of Texas was knowingly falsifying his last legal document.”
Steven said that the funeral home director was nothing but sympathetic and helpful, suggesting that Steven could fight to change the death certificate – but if he were to do that, he would have to wait to take care of Don’s body. Steven let go of having the certificate changed for now. “The day will come that I will get this piece of paper fixed,” he said.
The problems piled on and on in the days after Don’s death as Steven mourned the loss of his love: He learned that he could not make decisions for Don about his cremation. That Don’s son – who loves and supports Steven - needed to sign off on all final decisions. That Steven would not be able to access Don’s railroad retirement spousal pension. That Steven would not even be able to receive Don’s military pension. That Steven would be faced with obstacle after obstacle in the wake of Don’s death, all because Texas did not respect their marriage.
The laws in Texas ignored and minimized 31 years of Don and Steven’s life together: The men have been together since 1982. They met in Oklahoma City just after Steven had moved to Oklahoma, and Don was working on a railroad. He moved around a lot for his job throughout the years, but Steven happily moved with him. “We always felt that staying together was worth the inconvenience of moving with Don’s job,” Steven said. “Every time he got a transfer, I would quit my job and would go work at a temp agency until I landed a full-time job.”
Don had served in the Navy in Vietnam for four years before meeting Steven, and he could always feel the effects of Agent Orange. He often had various minor health problems, but they were treatable, and he continued to work for the railroad until he was 60, when he retired.
In 2008, the men married in California. “We figured a 25-year engagement was long enough,” Steven laughed. “We weren’t rushing into anything. We had never dreamt that it would be possible.”
The county clerk that performed their wedding helped them realize how important it was to them to commit themselves to each other in this ceremony. “It hit us that this is a bigger deal than we thought when we went into it,” Steven remembered. “It became very emotional. It was important to have it on paper and be recognized by a government.”
After Don’s retirement, he went to see the VA doctors, who quickly diagnosed him with multiple myeloma. After a procedure, the doctors assured the couple that if the cancer didn’t come back in a year, it was just an isolated instance. But when they returned within the year and the cancer had returned, the doctors were sure: It was multiple myeloma, an Agent Orange-presumptive cancer.
“The past five years have just been a whirlwind,” Steven said. He continued to work for a year after Don retired, but then was laid off from his company when they moved offices. Luckily, his job was able to pay him for eleven months after he was laid off, and Steven was able to stay home with Don to take care of him.
But as Don’s illness worsened, Steven continued taking care of his husband, and he was unable to look for additional work.
Now, after having been unemployed for the past four years, Steven has found it harder than ever to find a job. “No one’s trying to hire me,” Steven said, referencing the fact that he turned 60 years old this year. “Even temporary jobs are scarce.”
The freedom to marry won’t bring Don back, but it would make it easier for me. I’m just stuck in limbo. And that makes it just so much harder to move on with your life.
Steven now is uncertain about his financial future as he is unable to get the earned financial benefits that he would have received if Texas recognized his marriage. “If Texas respected my marriage, it would be a lot easier,” Steven said. “I’m living on one small pension that I get from the railroad, and supplementing that savings and 401K.” And all of this as he continues to help his mother-in-law, who mourned alongside Steven and their two adult children last year.
As Steven awaits the outcome of the legal case, he hopes that Texas will soon respect his marriage and put this matter to rest. “The freedom to marry won’t bring Don back,” he said. “But it would make it easier for me. I’m just stuck in limbo. And that makes it just so much harder to move on with your life.”