Neil Rafferty felt devastated when his Marine boyfriend, Michael Rudulph, left for deployment. So he did something crazy for love: he joined the Marines, too.
“I had already deployed twice, both times as a closeted gay man,” Rudulph explains in a StoryCorps podcast featured on the Obama Foundation website.
“I remember coming back from Iraq the second time. And I wake up, and my head is in your lap. I’m trembling and you’re rubbing my head and you’re telling me, ’You’re safe, I’m here.’ You were my comfort, you were my rock,” he recalls to Rafferty. “Just the fact of you seeing what war did to me and you looking at me and saying, ’I don’t want you to be alone next time you go through that. I want to be with you.'”
Three weeks after that moment, Rafferty walked into a recruiting office and enlisted.
“I remember going to training and then being told, homosexuality and the marine core are incompatible,” he says. “Do you remember being told that too?”
Rudulph, who hails from Birmingham, Alabama, answers without hesitation. “Yeah, of course.”
This chapter of the couple’s 13-year-long love story took place before the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” adding an additional layer of tension to the situation.
Their story is especially relevant now, as many of Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees opposed the repeal of DADT. James Mattis, the nominee for Secretary of Defense, even claimed the repeal was a mistake that weakened our military.
In another StoryCorps interview from 2015, Rafferty recalled having to sign his letters to Rudulph “Lisa,” the name of a woman Rudulph had once dated, just in case they were ever found. Rudulph even had an old photo of Lisa that he’d show his fellow leathernecks in case they asked who was sending him letters.
Once Rafferty became a Marine, the pair got to be together while deployed—sort of. They could talk, but not much more. “It was still tough to not be able to be with you,” Rudulph recalls. “Not to hold you, not for you to hold me.”
When DADT was repealed, Rudulph says, “that was the moment I believe our relationship truly began.”
“Things that are most important to you in life aren’t as sweet unless you can share it with the world,” he wrote on Facebook this week. “The world, and even our fellow Marines, responded with open arms. Today, we are just a normal couple with a mortgage, a few cats and a pit mix. We love. We fight—he’s at fault most of the time—and we make up and move on just like everyone else.”
Now engaged, the couple says many of their troopmates will be attending their wedding and celebrating their relationship—which makes Rudulph feel like he’s come “full circle.”
“You joined the Marine Corps for me,” Rudulph told Rafferty. “You were willing to go to war and possibly die to be sure that I’m okay. And I thank you for that.
“Well,” Rafferty replied, “I love you. So it was pretty worth it.”