by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
The Pentagon announced this week that it plans to extend new benefits to the spouses of Gay personnel. The move comes about 17 months after repeal of the longstanding 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' (DADT) policy prohibiting service by openly Gay personnel.
While no final decision has been made as to which benefits will be extended, reports indicate they may include housing privileges, access to base recreational facilities, and joint duty assignments for uniformed couples.
However, legal experts say, the Pentagon is unlikely to offer health-care coverage and more than 100 other spousal benefits while the Defense of Marriage Act - which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman - remains in effect.
The Obama administration has made it clear that it believes equal rights and benefits should be extended to all military families, regardless of sexual orientation.
In his inaugural address last month, President Obama appealed for Gay Americans to be 'treated like anyone else under the law.'
A WELCOME CHANGE
Advocates for LGBT service members welcomed the news, noting that it could boost support for marriage equality in the lead-up to a Supreme Court ruling this spring that may legalize same-sex unions.
'If you provide benefits to individuals seen as the most deserving, and the social fabric doesn't tear, that does make it easier down the line to do away with DOMA,' said Tammy S. Schultz, the director of the National Security and Joint Warfare Program at the Marine Corps War College, who has studied implementing the repeal of the ban on openly Gay troops. 'It could be a flanking maneuver to keep chipping away at it.'
The new guidelines will be departing Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta's final imprint on the armed forces. They come on the heels of two landmark changes undertaken during his relatively short tenure: the rescinding of the ban on openly Gay service members and the decision to allow women to serve in combat units.
Military officials have struggled with the fuss of equality quandaries that have emerged since the ban on openly Gay troops was lifted in September 2011, following congressional repeal of DADT. The repeal led to criticism of the military's subsequent decision not to give same-sex spouses the same privileges as opposite-sex ones.
The military 'has established a two-tiered system regarding how they treat the haves and have-not families,' said Allyson Robinson, the executive director of OutServe-SLDN, an organization that has been pressing the Pentagon to expand benefits to same-sex couples. 'It's an untenable leadership situation.'
Commander Leslie Hull-Ryde, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said the department has been conducting a 'deliberative and comprehensive review of the possibility of extending eligibility for benefits, when legally permitted, to same-sex domestic partners.'
The Defense Department has already granted a few benefits to same-sex spouses, mainly relating to troop deaths and other emergency situations.
In October, the Joint Chiefs of Staff received a final version of a plan to extend benefits to same-sex couples, said Robinson, who has informally advised the Pentagon on the issue. The Joint Chiefs did not take action on the recommendations at the time, she said, but the issue appears to have gained new momentum in recent months.
The government in 2010 expanded the range of benefits available to same-sex spouses of civilian employees, but those guidelines did not apply to the armed forces, because of DOMA.
HAGEL ON BOARD
The issue also surfaced during the confirmation hearing of defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, who has disavowed disparaging remarks he made in 1998 about an openly Gay ambassador. Hagel sought to reassure senators during his opening remarks last week, saying he is 'fully committed' to implementing the repeal of the ban on openly Gay troops and saying he would do 'everything possible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our service members.'
Activists and lawmakers who champion Gay rights say they recognize that many benefits mandated by federal law will remain unavailable to same-sex military couples because of the Defense of Marriage Act. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments next month about the constitutionality of the law, which numerous lower courts have struck down. The court is expected to rule on the issue by the end of June.
Still, activists and lawmakers who have pushed the Pentagon to offer benefits to same-sex couples say there are meaningful steps the military can take right now. These include offering Gay spouses military identification cards and access to commissaries and family support programs. The military also could offer transportation privileges for couples with one member stationed abroad, according to those pressing for expanded benefits.
According to the Washington Post, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) sent a letter to Panetta co-signed by 25 lawmakers urging him to extend full benefits as a matter of policy.
'As long as they remain in place, these restrictions have the effect of perpetuating discrimination against same-sex spouses and their families,' the congressman wrote. 'Department of Defense current policy is treating same-sex service members, their spouses and families as second-class citizens.'
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) also appealed to Panetta, a civil rights champion who often talks about being the son of Italian immigrants, not to leave office without tackling this issue.
'Before you retire, and to secure your legacy on this critical issue, we urge you to change Defense Department rules to extend as many benefits as possible,' she wrote in a Jan. 28 letter co-signed by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).
FLAP AT FORT BRAGG
The Army has wrestled in recent weeks with a controversy at Fort Bragg, N.C., that has given the issue greater urgency after the wife of a female lieutenant colonel was denied membership in the officers' spouses' organization in December because she didn't have a military ID. The case made national news and prompted the Marine Corps to issue a memo saying that groups at its bases nationwide could not reject prospective members on the basis of sexual orientation.
The spouses' group backed down last month, offering the officer's wife, Ashley Broadway, full membership. The announcement came the same day Broadway learned that she had been named Fort Bragg spouse of the year by Military Spouse magazine.
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