Iraq Veterans Build Lives in Tennessee
Anthony Wilfert & Brian Blas • Nolensville, TN
This story was originally published in May of 2014.
In May 2005, as they prepared to leave Fort Campbell military base in Kentucky for a year-long deployment in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division, Brian Blas and Anthony Wilfert knew that they wanted to so something for each other to make the long distance seem easier.
They settled on getting each other silver rings - bands to symbolize their commitment to their relationship, to remind them that after their time in Iraq, they would be returning to the person they loved.
"We wanted to take something with us that would be a reminder on an hourly basis," Tony said. "And since we were serving under Don't Ask, Don't Tell, we couldn't take a photo or something like that. It was challenging to be doing so much for this country and fighting for people's freedoms and then to be told that you're not able to be yourself or have a family and a partner."
Brian and Anthony had met the previous year while serving at the military base - they were 18 and 19 years old, respectively. They became fast friends, and by the time they were set for their deployment in Iraq, their relationship was solid.
Once in Iraq, they were able to keep in touch semi-frequently through emails and occasional phone calls - and they were even lucky enough to have their R&R period - rest and relaxation, where service members are able to return home - in the same two-week period, during which they traveled to Seattle to spend time with Brian's family.
By 2007, when they had both returned from Iraq, Brian and Tony decided to settle down in Nashville, Tennessee, not far from the military base where they met. They ended their terms in the service and began their civilian lives, with Tony finding work in sales and Brian enrolling in school to study graphic design and advertising.
"We have put down roots here. The only marriage license we want is a marriage license from our home state - Tennessee."
"We kind of planted ourselves here in Nashville," Tony explained. "We purchased our first home, then two years ago we upsized and got a bigger piece of land. We've been living the American dream."
Tony and Brian built a great life for themselves in Tennessee - they like where they live and know that it is home. But because they live in Tennessee, their nine years of commitment are not respected - and even if they were to leave their state and get a marriage license elsewhere, their home state would continue to treat them as single men.
Despite this, Brian and Tony have taken steps to celebrate their commitment to each other in Tennessee. Last December, the couple visited Brian's family in Guam, where Tony proposed. In front of the entire family, Tony asked Brian to marry him, offering him a new ring to replace the commitment rings they had worn throughout their time in Iraq.
"Having Tony come out to Guam and propose in front of my strongly Catholic family was an amazing experience," Brian said. "They completely support us and understand how important we are to each other."
"We are lucky enough to have two families who strongly support us and stand behind us completely," Tony added.
"I think my mom may actually love Brian more than me," he joked, explaining that even while the men were in Iraq, his mom sent care packages to Brian. (Brian's family is below, top; Tony's family is below, bottom)
Now, Brian and Tony are in the middle of planning their wedding celebration in Tennessee for next May, their tenth anniversary of becoming a couple.
Earlier this year, they found their wedding planning story in the headlines when the venue they chose and had agreed upon abruptly broke the arrangement, explaining that they did not want to host a ceremony for a same-sex couple. Although the venue eventually issued an apology after several discussions with the Tennessee Equality Project, the controversy was quite public, and Brian and Tony have since decided to pursue other venues.
"I think the bigger message that came out of this was the understanding that even in rural Tennessee, you can't treat gay people badly without having other people say that's wrong."
Soon after their story hit the news, they received an outpouring of support from people around the country and closer to home, right in Tennessee.
"I think the bigger message that came out of this was the understanding that even in rural Tennessee, you can't treat gay people badly without having other people say that's wrong," Brian said. "It's the understanding that we don't treat our neighbors like that - and I'm glad that our story could affirm that message in our community."
It's important to Brian and Tony to be able to say "I do" right in their home community in Tennessee: It's where they live, where they have built their lives, and where they look forward to a long and happy future.
"Tennessee is where we've decided to make our home," Tony said. "We like it down here in the South - and generally, people are kind and compassionate. We think that eventually, the laws will change and society will continue on this path of acceptance. It'll just take education and patience on our part - it'll take us being compassionate and extending a hand to those who need help recognizing that times are changing."
"We have put down roots here," Brian added. "And we're ready to keep speaking out about why this matters to us. We're ready to keep helping people understand that this is where we live and this is where we want to marry. The only marriage license we want is a marriage license from our home state - Tennessee."