Soldier Charlie Morgan carries on against Defense of Marriage Act, breast cancer
Chief Warrant Office Charlie Morgan reaches out to embrace her wife Karen at their home in New Durham on November 15, 2012. Earlier this year, Morgan stopped receiving chemotherapy for her Stage IV breast cancer and is on convalescence leave from her full-time position in the New Hampshire National Guard. She and Karen continue to advocate for the repeal of Defense of Marriage Act.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
Pictures of the Morgan family fill the shelves at their home in New Durham on November 15, 2012. Earlier this year, Charlie Morgan stopped receiving chemotherapy for her Stage IV breast cancer and is on convalescence leave from her full-time position in the New Hampshire National Guard. Her and Karen continue to advocate for the repeal of Defense of Marriage Act.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
The doctor at Dana Farber Cancer Institute gave Charlie Morgan two choices: one type of chemotherapy or another type of chemotherapy.
But Charlie, a 48-year-old chief warrant officer with the New Hampshire National Guard, had had enough chemotherapy. So far, it hadn’t worked, and it made her so sick that she had to be hospitalized.
So she created a third option: no chemotherapy.
The decision, she said, was empowering.
Charlie burst onto the national scene last September when she announced that she was a lesbian on MSNBC. She was celebrating the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the policy prohibiting gays from serving openly in the military. Its repeal allowed her to share stories about her wife, Karen, and their daughter, Casey, without fear of a court-martial.
It was a triumphant day, but it marked the beginning of the fight of – and for – her life.
Later that year, Charlie was diagnosed with inoperable breast cancer.
She’d successfully beaten cancer before – in 2008, she underwent a double mastectomy and chemotherapy. She was well enough to serve a yearlong deployment to Kuwait that ended in August 2011.
But by January of this year, the recurring cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. Chemotherapy in New Hampshire had been unsuccessful, which is why she and Karen went to Dana Farber in Boston this April.
That day, Charlie finally asked what she’d never had the nerve to ask before.
If I do these treatments, how much longer will I live?
Do you really want to know? the doctor replied.
“Absolutely,” Charlie said.
The doctor explained that weekly chemotherapy treatments in Boston would give her another two years, full of nausea and other debilitating side effects.
Without the chemo, she’d have about six months, Charlie recalls the doctor saying.
“Well, I’ll tell you what,” Charlie said. “I’m going to take that six months and live.”
That was seven months ago.
She’s on convalescent leave from the New Hampshire Guard and receives hospice care. But she has a lot to live for and is hanging on.
As federal law stands now, if Charlie does die, Karen will receive no survivor benefits. The two entered into a civil union in Vermont 12 years ago and converted it to a marriage in New Hampshire last year.
The federal Defense of Marriage Act prohibits Karen from receiving the benefits that a heterosexual military spouse would, including health insurance and the right to be buried next to Charlie in a military cemetery. (Casey, 5, is covered.)
Last October, the Morgans, who live in New Durham, joined 13 others in suing the U.S. Department of Defense over DOMA.
They hope the U.S. Supreme Court takes it up or that Congress will repeal the law.
When Charlie decided not to do any more chemotherapy, it frightened Karen, who nonetheless supported the decision.
But that choice made Charlie feel free. Up to that point, her health had been in doctors’ hands. Now it would be in hers.
She will die on her terms, and hopefully not until judges or members of Congress act.
“I plan to be around when they do repeal DOMA,” she said.
Charlie tires easily and is in pain, but that hasn’t stopped her and Karen, 40, from making the last few months an adventure.
In February, she traveled to Washington, D.C., and met with staff from House Speaker John Boehner’s office. She also met with 1st District Congressman Frank Guinta.
By the end of March, it was clear neither oral nor IV chemotherapy was working. Moreover, Charlie was losing her voice because the tumors were pressing against her vocal chords. After she said no to chemotherapy, doctors offered radiation treatments that shrunk the tumors and allowed her to speak again.
Amid all those developments, she, Karen and Casey took a trip to Hawaii, courtesy of OutServe, an organization for gay and transgendered military personnel. They also went to a summit sponsored by OutServe in Washington, D.C.
In June, the Morgans moved in with Karen’s mother and father, Jack and Linda Doubleday, in New Durham. The couple owns a used bookstore in Rochester and renovated their basement to make space for the family. Karen and Charlie also took Casey to Disney World.
That same month, Charlie and Karen traveled to the White House for an event in honor of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month. Charlie hadn’t fully recovered her voice, and she lights up when she shows the picture of President Obama leaning over to hear her and thanking her for her service. She keeps a copy of his proclamation.
“Every generation of Americans has brought our Nation closer to fulfilling its promise of equality,” it says. “While progress has taken time, our achievements in advancing the rights of LGBT Americans remind us that history is on our side.”
Charlie, her hair growing in after it had fallen out during chemo, holds that proclamation and the gold-lettered invitation to the White House and says it’s things like this that prevent her from feeling restless, even though she can’t work.
She’s worked most of her life. She joined the U.S. Army right out of high school in 1982 and stayed on active duty until 1985. She served in the U.S. Army Reserves until 1988 and then the Kentucky National Guard for four years after that. She re-enlisted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and joined the New Hampshire Guard in 2008.
In July, Charlie, an independent, and Karen, a Democrat, testified in Minneapolis before the committee responsible for developing the Democratic Party’s platform.
In August, they traveled to Guatemala and Peru.
In September, Casey was back in school, so Karen stayed in New Hampshire while Charlie’s mother and sister went with her to New York City for the one-year anniversary of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
On that trip, Charlie met Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the USS Intrepid. She had her photo taken with him, and he gave her his coin. It’s a military tradition, she said – a coin’s value is related to the rank of the officer it’s associated with.
“When you do something good, you get a coin,” Charlie explained. “When you’re out and about at a club, you pull out your coin.”
If you have the highest-ranking coin, everyone else has to buy you a drink.
But the only drinks Charlie Morgan has been consuming lately have been made from raw produce, and she hasn’t been hitting many clubs – the music that fills her cozy home on a recent night is Casey practicing the piano. For all their recent adventures, the Morgans’ greatest journey this year has been the one within.
Prior to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’s” repeal, Karen was a secret from everyone Charlie worked with in the military. When Charlie deployed with the 197th Fires Brigade to Kuwait, the support structures designed to help a mother raising a child by herself was off-limits to Karen. So too were the highly publicized goodbye ceremonies.
“It was like being invisible,” said Karen, a part-time teacher’s aide. Now people from the Guard drop by all the time. They bring food, mow the lawn.
Karen’s a deeply private person, but that’s starting to change.
She and Charlie are sort of foils. Even now, though she’s constrained by aches and pains, Charlie uses huge arm gestures to make a point. Karen speaks softly and deliberately.
In the last year, Karen’s family has been as much a rallying cry to others as it is a source of love and support to her. That’s prompted her to open up more over the last year than she would have preferred at first.
When Charlie appeared on MSNBC last September, she did it alone. But when the two appeared on CNN in October, Karen spoke as much as Charlie.
Karen said she was scared when Charlie said no more chemo. But she understood it, accepted it and supported it.
“I think that’s what I would want somebody to do for me,” Karen said. “I would want to be able to make a decision about the quality of life.”
“She couldn’t get out of bed. She couldn’t enjoy time with Casey. She wanted to play with Casey, but couldn’t,” Karen said.
And Charlie’s quality of life has improved since she stopped chemo. She struggles to get up in the morning – the tumors bother her chest and strain her back. She has trouble sleeping at night, but Karen nurses her through it. A morphine patch has helped.
But Charlie does get up in the morning and has the energy to spend time with her daughter the rest of the day. Both Casey and Karen have gone from bystanders to participants.
When Charlie was in treatment, Karen’s biggest role was to drive her to and from appointments.
Charlie’s now following a regimen from the Gerson Institute and consumes pounds of vegetables through soups and juice every day. Had she eaten like that her whole life, Charlie says, she might never have gotten cancer.
Karen, along with an aide who comes by regularly, does a lot of the chopping and cooking and juicing necessary for the diet that Charlie says keeps her going.
“The caretaking’s become a lot more intensive,” Karen said. But, she said, “it has made it easier on me emotionally.”
Casey has a role, too, Karen said. She gets Charlie her slippers, water, whatever she needs.
“It makes her feel a part of the process,” Karen said of Casey, who goes to part-time kindergarten. “It kind of keeps her in the loop of what’s going on, she knows how Charlie’s feeling.”
Deciding to end chemotherapy brought things into focus, Karen and Charlie said. It has allowed them to concentrate on the time they have left. They enjoy the present and try not to think about what they’ll miss in the future.
They don’t have big plans right now – Charlie got so tuckered out after seeing President Obama in Concord before the election that she couldn’t get up the next day. She needs to conserve her strength.
One of the big reasons Charlie wanted to join the military was because her father had served in the Army. He died when Charlie was 3, and her mother made ends meet on the same survivor benefits that Charlie now seeks for Karen.
“Fighting the fight,” Charlie said. “That’s what keeps me going.”