VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – A Navy tradition caught up with the repeal of the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" rule on Wednesday when two women sailors became the first to share the coveted "first kiss" on the pier after one of them returned from 80 days at sea.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Marissa Gaeta of Placerville, Calif., descended from the USS Oak Hill amphibious landing ship and shared a quick kiss in the rain with her partner, Petty Officer 3rd Class Citlalic Snell of Los Angeles. Gaeta, 23, wore her Navy dress uniform while Snell, 22, wore a black leather jacket, scarf and blue jeans. The crowd screamed and waved flags around them.
"It's something new, that's for sure," Gaeta told reporters after the kiss.
"It's nice to be able to be myself. It's been a long time coming."
There was little to differentiate this kiss from countless others when a Navy ship pulls into its home port following a deployment. Neither the Navy nor the couple tried to draw special attention to what was happening and many onlookers waiting for their loved ones to come off the ship were busy talking among themselves.
Snell smiled as she approached Gaeta and they briefly embraced as a small contingent of local television crews and photographers, who were unaware about what was going to happen until moments earlier, captured the scene.
"She told me about the first kiss a couple of days ago and I kind of freaked out — in a good way — but of course I'm a little nervous, you know. But I've been waiting since she left," Snell said.
David Bauer, the commanding officer of the USS Oak Hill, said that Gaeta and Snell's kiss would largely be a non-event and the crew's reaction upon learning who was selected to have the first kiss was positive.
"It's going to happen and the crew's going to enjoy it. We're going to move on and it won't overshadow the great things that this crew has accomplished over the past three months," Bauer said.
The ship returned to Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story following an 80-day deployment to Central America. The crew of more than 300 participated in exercises involving the militaries of Honduras, Guatemala Colombia and Panama as part of Amphibious-Southern Partnership Station 2012.
Both women are Navy fire controlmen, who maintain and operate weapons systems on ships. They met as roommates at training school and have been dating for two years, which they said was difficult under "don't ask, don't tell."
Repeal of the 18-year-old legal provision, under which gays could serve as long as they didn't openly acknowledge their sexual orientation, took effect in September.
"We did have to hide it a lot in the beginning," Snell said. "A lot of people were not always supportive of it in the beginning, but we can finally be honest about who we are in our relationship, so I'm happy."
Navy officials said it was the first time on record that a same-sex couple was chosen to kiss first upon a ship's return. Sailors and their loved ones bought $1 raffle tickets for the opportunity. Gaeta said she bought $50 of tickets, a figure that she said pales in comparison to amounts that some other sailors and their loved ones had bought.
The money was used to host a Christmas party for the children of sailors and Gaeta said everybody in her chain of command and on her ship supported her win in the drawing.
Snell said she believes their experience won't be the last one for gays and lesbians in the military.
"I think that it's something that is going to open a lot of doors, for not just our relationship, but all the other gay and lesbian relationships that are in the military now," she said.
Snell is based on the USS Bainbridge, the guided missile destroyer that helped rescue cargo captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates in 2009.
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