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Afghan Suicide Bomber Puts a Tragic End to a Life Spent Seeking Dignity

The New York Times logo The New York Times 12/24/2015 By ALAN SCHWARZ and ASHLEY SOUTHALL
An Air Force team with the coffin of Staff Sgt. Chester J. McBride, one of six service members killed in a bombing in Afghanistan. © Mark Wilson/Getty Images An Air Force team with the coffin of Staff Sgt. Chester J. McBride, one of six service members killed in a bombing in Afghanistan.

Five years ago, Adrianna Vorderbruggen was forced to keep her relationship with another woman secret. Only after the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in 2011 could Maj. Vorderbruggen, an Air Force officer, even acknowledge her identity as a lesbian, let alone marry her partner and raise a child with her.

For advocates of gay rights in the military, she provided “a perfect narrative” of what it took to quietly endure and ultimately overcome discrimination in the ranks. She showed, said Kate Kendell, the executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, “what was required to be in the military, to hide who you were.”

But this week a suicide bomber violently altered the arc of Major Vorderbruggen’s narrative from triumph to heartbreak. On Monday, Major Vorderbruggen was one of six American service members killed when the bomber drove his motorcycle into a convoy of American military vehicles near Bagram Airbase north of Kabul.

It was the deadliest single attack on American forces in Afghanistan since 2013, and came as the Taliban had been increasingly wresting control of parts of the country from Afghan forces. Though American combat operations officially ended a year ago, about 9,800 United States troops remain in Afghanistan performing “advise and assist” missions.

Major Vorderbruggen, 36, served with the Office of Special Investigations — the Air Force version of the F.B.I., trained in counterterrorism — as did three other victims of the attack: Staff Sgt. Michael A. Cinco, 28, of Mercedes, Tex.; Staff Sgt. Peter W. Taub, 30, of Philadelphia; and Staff Sgt. Chester J. McBride, 30, of Statesboro, Ga.

The two others killed were providing security for the team. They were identified as Tech. Sgt. Joseph G. Lemm, 45, of Westchester County, N.Y., and Staff Sgt. Louis M. Bonacasa, 31, of Coram, N.Y. The military said they were both assigned to the 105th Security Forces Squadron at Stewart Air National Guard base in Newburgh, N.Y.

Two other service members were wounded, the Air Force said.

When Major Vorderbruggen’s wife, Heather Lamb, gave birth to their son, Jacob, before the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the major had to request leave to help with a friend’s baby rather than her own, according to an essay written in 2013 by Ms. Lamb’s mother, Anne. The couple married in 2012, with Major Vorderbruggen becoming one of the first openly gay Air Force officers to enter a same-sex marriage while serving.

Ms. Lamb said in an email on Tuesday that her wife was also survived by her father, Joe, and brothers, Dan, John and Chris. She expressed concern that her spouse’s identity as a lesbian in the military could overshadow her being a devoted soldier like any other.

“It is important to us that she be remembered first as an Air Force officer, loving mother, wife, daughter and sister, above all else,” she said, “not primarily by her sexual orientation.”

The Military Partners and Families Coalition, a group that advocates for gay service members, pointed out in a Facebook post that the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would allow for the major’s wife and son to receive the same benefits accorded other military families, something not possible before 2011.

“We do find comfort,” the post said, “in knowing that Heather and Jacob are no longer in the shadows and will be extended the rights and protections due any American military family as they move through this incredibly difficult period in their lives.”

Other service members killed in the attack were similarly remembered in interviews and social media posts for how their character shaped them as soldiers. Sergeant McBride helped the Statesboro High School football team win the Georgia state championship in 2001 as a quiet but dedicated defensive back, a former coach, Steven Pennington, said. Sergeant McBride later spoke to the school’s team the day he left for Afghanistan to give the players lessons on making good choices, choosing friends wisely and respecting authority.

“All these things were something our players needed to hear,” Mr. Pennington said. “But it reinforced to us coaches that what we’re teaching them, he is living it.”

Jonathan Taub, the brother of Sergeant Taub, recalled their growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs as Phillies and Eagles fans who played an extraordinary amount of Nintendo video games. Mr. Taub said his little brother had not always planned on serving in the military but was “a protector” at heart.

Sergeant Taub had a 3-year-old daughter. His wife is due to give birth in June.

“Pete always looked out for his friends,” Jonathan Taub said. “I saw him multiple times stop altercations or stick up for one of his friends who was being bullied. He’s always been the type that if two people were fighting, he would get in the middle and make them friends.”

Sergeant Lemm was a 15-year veteran of the New York Police Department, where he had been a detective for the last two years on the Bronx Warrant Squad, a dangerous assignment that involved pursuing fugitives wanted in violent crimes. He stood 6-foot-5, weighed 240 pounds, and added the strong jaw of a cartoon superhero, said Michael J. Palladino, the head of the New York detectives’ union.

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