January 24, 2013 | by Chris Johnson
DOD faces renewed calls to extend benefits to gay troops
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is under renewed pressure to extent partner benefits to gay troops (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is under renewed pressure to extend partner benefits to gay troops (Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Pentagon is under renewed pressure — now most recently from a California U.S. House member — to allow gay service members to have to certain partner benefits already afforded to straight troops, such as military IDs and access to family programs.

On Thursday, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) began circulating a letter among U.S. House members calling on Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to begin instituting the benefits to gay troops in the wake of a New York Times article that profiled several same-sex military couples who faced hardship because of unequal treatment despite “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.

“[A]s a recent article in the New York Times illustrates, the end of DADT has not meant the end of unequal treatment of same sex spouses of U.S. service members, who are denied a wide range of services and benefits – from health insurance to pre-deployment counseling, to access to base commissaries,” the letter states. “As long as they remain in place, these restrictions have the effect of perpetuating discrimination against same sex spouses and their families.”

The U.S. military is prohibited from offering major partner benefits — such as health and pension benefits — to gay troops because of the Defense of Marriage Act and other provisions of the U.S. code that govern rights for U.S. service members. But the Pentagon is still withholding other benefits to gay troops that could be extended administratively at any time under secretarial directive.

The benefits that the letter calls for are military ID cards and registration in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System; access to Morale, Welfare, & Recreation programs; and access to other family programs. Other benefits not identified in the letter that the Pentagon could extend are access to legal services, joint duty assignments and military housing.

“Department of Defense current policy is treating same sex service members, their spouses and families as second class citizens,” the letter concludes. “As President Obama stated during his inaugural speech, ‘Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well.’”

Eileen Lainez, a Pentagon spokesperson, said Panetta would reply to the letter as appropriate.

“As you are aware, the department is conducting a deliberative and comprehensive review of the possibility of extending eligibility for benefits, when legally permitted, to same-sex domestic partners,” Lainez added. “The benefits are being examined from a policy, fiscal, legal and feasibility perspective. There are benefits currently available to all of our service members, based on their member-designations.”

Others this week who’ve called on Panetta to enact these benefits are the Human Rights Campaign, which issued an action alert calling on Panetta to grant military IDs to the same-sex partners of troops, and the LGBT military group OutServe-SLDN. The calls come in the wake of Panetta’s decision to exercise his authority to lift the ban on women in combat roles.

“After nearly two years of unnecessary and unexplained delay, it’s likewise time for Secretary Panetta to acknowledge and affirm the service and sacrifice of the gay and lesbian military families — who may now serve openly, but are still anything but equal — by immediately extending all benefits within his authority under existing law,” said OutServe-SLDN Executive Director Allyson Robinson.

Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, whom President Obama tapped to replace Panetta upon his departure, is expected to answer questions on issues pertaining LGBT troops during his confirmation hearing set for Jan. 31. In a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer last week, Hagel already expressed commitment to extending partner benefits to gay troops, saying, “I will do everything possible to the extent permissible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our service members.”

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The full text of the letter that Schiff is circulating among House members follows

Dear Secretary Panetta,

As you prepare to leave the Defense Department, please accept our gratitude for your years of service to the Nation, including your many years as a member of the House of Representatives.

During your tenure, the American military has taken the historic step of stopping discrimination against gay and lesbian service members by ending the policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), which allowed homosexuals to serve in the military, provided they did not reveal their sexual orientation. This change has not only made our military a truer reflection of the country it protects, but it has also occurred without any of the disruption that critics had predicted.  Much of that is due to your leadership and the senior leadership of the Armed Services.

However, as a recent article in the New York Times illustrates, the end of DADT has not meant the end of unequal treatment of same sex spouses of U.S. service members, who are denied a wide range of services and benefits – from health insurance to pre-deployment counseling, to access to base commissaries.  As long as they remain in place, these restrictions have the effect of perpetuating discrimination against same sex spouses and their families.

We understand that most of the benefits available to veterans, service members and their families are granted directly by Congress. Well over a hundred of these statutory benefits are contingent on marital status. These benefits will remain unavailable to legally married same-sex couples unless the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is repealed or declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court this year or individual statutes are modified by Congress. In the meantime, there are several executive actions that you can take to ease the burden and increase the inclusiveness of all of our service members and their families.

We strongly urge you to issue same sex spouses military identification cards and registration in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS). This is the easiest and simplest step to include same sex partners as part of the Department of Defense family.

We urge you to allow same sex partners access to Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) programs. Current regulations leave open to Installation Commanders the possibility of opening up limited access to certain MWR programs to guests and the general public. These exceptions would be applied regardless of sexual orientation or individual situations; in other words, a same-sex spouse could receive guest privileges, just as the girlfriend or boyfriend of a straight service member receives at present, and would likely be treated as any non-dependent member of the public.

We also urge you to allow same sex partners access to family programs. DoD uses a flexible definition of “family” for the purpose of implementing Family Centers and programming, but leaves it up to the individual Service Secretaries to determine eligibility. Thus, each branch of the service (and each installation commander) determines the extent to which same-sex spouses and partners have access to these programs, which include deployment support, marriage and family counseling, relocation assistance and financial management.

Department of Defense current policy is treating same sex service members, their spouses and families as second class citizens. As President Obama stated during his inaugural speech, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well.”

We strongly urge you take immediate action to rectify the inequality of benefits available to families of gay or lesbian service members.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

6 Comments
  • Hopefully I can then get my husband a military ID card since I am retired Army.

  • Second class treatment is S.O.P. for suspected gays, bisexuals or transgender soldiers and in the Infantry and it's accepted as being just fine. Even if you have a Army Achievement Medal and been selected as the Soldier of the Month and Soldier of Quarter. Even after they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to train you.

  • Using the military argument of unit cohesion and retention, the current half-a$$ed policy fails that test.

  • BRAVO for Rep. Schiff but it’s just more BLAH BLAH BLAH from HRC and SLDN who have done NOTHING over the last two years to put pressure on the President or Panetta [and Gates before him] for failing to EVEN RESPOND to their EARLIER “calls” for action going back to January 2011. HOW MANY TIMES have they called on Panetta IN PERSON or BY TELEPHONE? They are paper tigers still begging for the Community to send them money while they continue to do nothing but issue press releases while this President—despite all his pretty words—has demonstrated again and again that his feet have to be dragged to the proverbial fire. Why hasn’t SLDN and HRC called a major press conference with our allies in Congress and gay and lesbian vets and denounced Pentagon paid shill Eileen Lainez for the FRAUD in her continuously regurgitated claims—read LIES—that they STILL need to “study” benefits issues, and DEMANDED that the President ORDER the extension of all couple benefits NOW not EXPLICITLY banned by DOMA as well as the inclusion of individual LGB service members in the protections against harassment and discrimination in such things as duty assignments and promotions of the Military Equal Opportunity Program? No one needs wait to see if Harvey Milk really did appear to Chuck Hagel in a burning bush. TODAY, HRC and SLDN!! Your gay brothers and sisters defending Freedom around the world denied to them don’t have the luxury of just sitting in DC offices taking bows for doing nothing more than churning out press releases that accomplish NOTHING. Have you no shame?

  • The White House continues to shoot itself in the foot by failing to remedy federally financed, anti-gay discrimination– to which it is tacitly complicit– and which can easily be ended with the president’s Executive Orders.

    The soaring rhetoric of the inauguration has been, repeatedly– within just a few days– rendered as little more than cheap, hypocritical PR by the intentional backpedaling of the WH and more stalling by its DoD.

    Even as a purely cynical, political matter– what amateurs at the WH think it is wise to see Panetta’s stature– and by extension, his commander-in-chief’s– besmirched at retirement by this increasingly sour note of indefensible, blatant discrimination?

    The president needs to end this hypocrisy now– with EO’s to fully end discrimination against LGB service members and their families. And, likewise, the president needs to end anti-LGBT discrimination by federal contractors aided and abetted with federal contracting dollars.

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