It’s Wednesday morning around 10:30 when the Oak Hill finally comes into view, its steel-gray bow peeking out from behind a grove of green trees at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek.
It’s been three months since the dock landing ship left home for Central America, and all of the usual fanfare is waiting to greet its crew: crowds of cheering families, toddlers dressed in sailor suits, and the lucky, excited woman who’s been chosen to take part in a time-honored Navy tradition, the first homecoming kiss.
In this case, that woman is 22-year-old Citlalic Snell. She’s a sailor herself, assigned to the destroyer Bainbridge, but today she’s in civilian clothes – jeans, boots and a stylish leather jacket. Watching pierside as the Oak Hill pulls into port, she absentmindedly twists the small diamond ring on her left hand.
A uniformed liaison who is with her explains how it’s going to work: Snell’s sailor will be among the first off the ship, and when it’s time, Snell will be escorted onto the pier for the kiss.
The liaison asks if she’s nervous.
“Sort of,” Snell admits.
As it starts to drizzle, the brow is finally lowered. A handful of top officers are first off the ship, and then comes a young woman in dress blues, Petty Officer 2nd Class Marissa Gaeta.
Snell cracks a wide smile.
“That’s her,” she says.
When Gaeta spots her, she smiles, too. They embrace. With all eyes watching, they keep the kiss short, and the crowd cheers.
As the rest of the crew begins to file off the ship, Gaeta and Snell slip away for a few moments alone before speaking to a group of news reporters.
They say they’re both a little embarrassed by all the attention, but they understand it.
“It’s a big deal,” Gaeta says. “It’s been a long time coming.”
They explain that they’ve been dating for a little over two years, about as long as they’ve been in the Navy. They met right after boot camp. They were roommates at their first training school, where they both became fire controlmen.
Until this September, when the military’s ban on openly gay service was lifted, they worked hard to keep their relationship secret. When Snell came home from her last deployment in August, kissing on the pier wasn’t an option.
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