February 11, 2013 | by Chris Johnson
Pentagon to offer partner benefits to gay troops
Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta

Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Pentagon announced on Monday that it will start the process of offering limited benefits available under current law to gay troops with same-sex partners.

In a memo dated Feb. 11 to senior Pentagon officials, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta enumerated the benefits that will be afforded to gay troops — which include military IDs, joint duty assignments and access to the commissary — and set a goal for implementing these benefits by Aug. 31, but no later than Oct. 1.

“Taking care of our service members and honoring the sacrifices of all military families are two core values of this nation,” Panetta said in a statement accompanying the memo. “Extending these benefits is an appropriate next step under current law to ensure that all service members receive equal support for what they do to protect this nation.”

Other benefits that will be afforded are access to morale, welfare and recreation programs; sexual assault counseling; legal assistance; child care; and space-available travel on military aircraft. A full list of the benefits can be found on Attachment 2 of the Panetta memo here.

The memo states the Pentagon will “immediately proceed” with implementing these changes and provide a plan within 60 days.

However, the Pentagon won’t at this time offer certain benefits that LGBT advocates have been seeking under current law, such as access to on-base housing, covering costs for transportation to an overseas post and burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

During a news briefing on Monday, a Pentagon senior official said housing wouldn’t be offered because extending that benefit would be “violating the spirit” of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage.

Panetta writes in the memorandum that the Pentagon will continue to review these benefits, indicating they haven’t yet been outright rejected.

“With regard to on-base housing, burial and benefits related to command sponsorship overseas, these benefits present complex legal and policy challenges due to their nexus to statutorily-prohibited benefits and due to ongoing reviews about how best to provide scarce resources,” Panetta wrote.

A Pentagon senior legal official at the briefing said the issue of housing was “sensitive” in 2010 as the Defense Department solicited comment among service members for its report on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” because of the sense there isn’t enough housing for service members under current policy already.

“It’s a very sensitive issue because we don’t have enough housing for everybody,” the official said. “The other thing that factors is because it’s sensitive and there is a limited amount, you end up bumping people, and there’s sensitivity behind that. So, the secretary is going to let the working group work through it a little bit longer before they make a final decision.”

Asked who decided that housing shouldn’t be extended at this time, the Pentagon senior official said, “the decision was made by the department, by the department that we would not extend housing at this time.”

Despite the lack of inclusion of some benefits, OutServe-SLDN — which has called for the extension of these benefits since August 2011, before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lifted — praised Panetta in a statement and described the move as “substantive.”

“Secretary Panetta’s decision today answers the call President Obama issued in his inaugural address to complete our nation’s journey toward equality, acknowledging the equal service and equal sacrifice of our gay and lesbian service members and their families,” said Allyson Robinson, executive director of OutServe-SLDN.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said President Obama “welcomes” the benefits extension at the Pentagon. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney had previously told the Washington Blade the president was aware of the issue.

“The president welcomes the announcement by the Secretary of Defense that the department will extend certain benefits to the same-sex partners and families of service members based on its thorough and deliberate review of this issue,” Inouye said. “This step will strengthen our military and help ensure that all our troops and their families are treated with fairness and equality.”

The move will also be followed by the Coast Guard. In a statement following the news on Monday, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said she directed U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp to implement partner benefits along the lines of the ones enacted in other branches of the military.

“The Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Coast Guard stand with the Department of Defense on the extension of benefits for military same-sex partners,” Napolitano said. “The extension of benefits for military same-sex partners honors our Department’s guiding principles to treat all service members and applicants equally and with dignity and respect.”

Other benefits, such as health, pension and housing allowances, are precluded from gay service members because of Section 3 of DOMA. Litigation challenging that law, known as Windsor v. United States, is pending before the Supreme Court, and justices are expected to make a decision on the constitutionality of the law before their term ends in June.

Because implementation of these benefits won’t happen until months after the Supreme Court rules on DOMA, a decision from justices striking down the law could shake up which benefits will be afforded at that time.

“In the event that the Defense of Marriage Act is no longer applicable to the Department of Defense, it will be the policy of the Department to construe the words ‘spouse’ and ‘marriage’ without regard to sexual orientation, and married couples, irrespective of sexual orientation, and their dependents, will be granted full military benefits,” Panetta wrote.

The Pentagon senior official maintained the DOMA litigation had no impact on the timing to extend benefits and it was instead based on “what it takes to actually roll out the benefit.”

“Normally, you’re looking at eight months to a year or so,” the official said. “This is a very ambitious schedule. We’re really pressing hard to do this as quick as possible.”

The Pentagon senior legal official clarified the military IDs given to gay troops with same-sex partners or spouses will be different to denote these service members aren’t eligible for certain benefits under DOMA. The card won’t be a different color, although there will be a new code in place — “DP” — in the relationship category.

Gay service members need not be married to their same-sex partner for benefit eligibility. An unmarried same-sex couple can register with the Pentagon for benefits by signing a declaration attesting to the existence of their committed relationship. Benefits also may be available in some cases to the children of same-sex domestic partners.

The Pentagon senior official estimated the new benefits would reach 5,600 active duty troops, 3,400 members of the National Guard and Reserve and 8,000 retired service members. The official also said any cost of these benefits would be negligible on the federal government.

Pentagon officials have said since the time “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lifted in September 2011 that they’ve been reviewing the benefits issue, but no action has been taken until now. LGBT advocates, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said the military service chiefs objected to issuing these benefits because they believed the move would be seen as political if they were extended before the Supreme Court made a decision on DOMA.

The Pentagon senior legal official declined to comment on the opinion of the service chiefs when asked about any objections they might have had.

“There was a robust internal dialogue about all the issues,” the official said. “At the end of the day, the chiefs rendered their opinion and their advice to the secretary, and he considered it, and decided to do what he’s doing. To answer the question about what was the chiefs’ advice, I’ll defer to the chiefs.”

Beyond benefits, another move that LGBT advocates have been pushing for is an explicit non-discrimination policy for gay service members who feel they’re facing harassment or discrimination. OutServe-SLDN has said Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel upon confirmation “must use his authority to ban discrimination” against LGBT service members.

The Pentagon senior official suggested the Defense Department was disinclined to take this action, saying, “We have not changed our policy at this time.” Asked to clarify if such a move is on the table, the senior official said, “The Pentagon’s position is always to treat all members with dignity and respect regardless of sexual orientation, and that has not changed.”

There will also be exclusion of these benefits for the partners of gay service members who are now deceased. Following the briefing, Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christiansen confirmed “there will not be grandfathering of benefits” for partners and spouses in this situation. That means Karen Morgan — the spouse of Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan, who died Sunday after fighting DOMA and cancer — won’t be eligible for these benefits.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said the Pentagon took a “historic step” by extending these benefits, but said more work is necessary as long as DOMA is in place.

“It’s time to right this wrong,” Griffin said. “When the Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of DOMA in the coming weeks, they should take note of the real harm this law inflicts every day. The Court should reflect on the sacrifice made by Americans like Staff Sergeant Tracy Johnson, whose wife was killed in action late last year, or the family of Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan, who succumbed to cancer earlier this week. In both cases, DOMA barred specific benefits that could soften the tragic blow of the loss of a loved one.”

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

5 Comments
  • Good news. Funny though, the President mentions support for same-sex couples in passing during a speech and three weeks later DoD takes action. Over 2.5 years after the President signs a memo directing immediate action to provide benefits to domestic partners of federal civilian employees and they still haven't managed it.

  • The troops, no matter gay or straight, are serving the United States. They're putting their lives in danger for the ENTIRE United States when they don't have to. They DESERVE all the benefits there are. If the LGBT community isn't getting what's deserved than The straight community deserves the same treatment.

  • What about health insurance for retired service men working now for DOD as civilians? It's a start, still not EQUAL!

  • HOWEVER MUCH THIS IS ONE STEP FORWARD & TWO STEPS BACK, we must thank Ft. Bragg Army wife Ashley Broadway, other members of the American Military Partners Association, and our allies in Congress led by Cong. Adam Schiff and Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Jeanne Shaheen, and Barbara Boxer for succeeding in what PAID Gay, Inc., organizations barely tried to do—forcing the Obama Administration to FINALLY stop holding hostage some benefits to LGB military couples. Sadly, if predictably—as they’re always eager to thank Massa for any pat on the head—SLDN and HRC have fallen all over themselves rushing to thank Secretary Panetta/Commander-in-Chief Obama for what is a half loaf. Yes, it’s still a milestone, but it COULD and SHOULD have happened the same day the repeal bill was signed OVER TWO YEARS AGO because the Pentagon ADMITTED in their report released on NOVEMBER 30, 2010, that they had ALREADY identified what benefits could be extended. Is there ANY acceptable excuse for delaying IMPLEMENTATION of these benefits until the end of August or beginning of October? ABSOLUTELY NOT for the same reason. Is what Mr. Panetta is CLAIMING why access to VITAL “on-base housing” can’t be extended credible? ABSOLUTELY NOT because that 2010 Pentagon report SPECIFICALLY and UNEQUIVOCALLY revealed that, emphasis THEIRS:

    “For benefits such as [military family housing] the Department of Defense COULD legally direct the services to revise their regulations to extend coverage to service members’ same-sex partners. This could be accomplished in two ways: leave to the Service member the freedom to designate his or her ‘dependents’, ‘family members’, or similar term; or, revise these definitions to specifically mention a committed, same-sex relationship, and require some type of proof of that committed relationship. The latter is similar to the approach now being taken in Federal agencies for civilian employees.”.

    I correctly predicted they would continue to ARBITRARILY deny this benefit because—their hollow, disingenuous, and outright false excuses aside—the obvious real reason is that they don’t want to deal with a possible uproar from Private and Mrs. Tater about the horror of the Tater tots having to live next door to ho-mo-sexuals! This is the same kind of cowardice and lack of leadership motivated by homophobia in their own top ranks and mostly IMAGINARY fears about the field that led them to drag out first even TALKING about repealing DADT and, then, DELAYING implementing it as long as possible. And, now a Pentagon shill drools it would be “violating the spirit” of the Defense of Marriage Act. WHO is the DOD to interpret "spirit of the law"?

    And, AGAIN, the focus on partnership benefits alone which, as important as they are, only affect the MINORITY of LGBs in the services obscures the fact that Secretary Panetta is STILL refusing to include all of them under the crucial protections against harassment and discrimination of the Military Equal Opportunity Program.

    ATTENTION SLDN, HRC—and NGLTF and Lambda Legal: it’s YOUR move now—and because you had virtually NOTHING to do with even this partial step happening it’s far past time you started EARNING the money the gay community sends you. Mere LIP SERVICE to existing to FIGHT for us is no longer enough.

  • This is lovely. But, THE HEADLINE , as with the same headline being run when State Dept. Employees "received same-sex partner "benefits" is VERY MISLEADING. I am the husband of a U.S. State Department employee who has been with the Dept since 1991. We Same-Sex partners and spouse's get a pass port. We get to use the grocery store. We get to be put on orders. We get to go to the on base movie theatre and mall. Please…… we could do ALL of these things with out anyone coming out and saying "We've given "them" benefits" what "We" really need is real benefits! INSURANCE! Yes I am so thankful for all that our president and others have done to put us on the same level as straight spouse's. I am so appreciative of these benefits. But to be legally married IN WASHINGTON DC to your husband for 3 years and have been together for 12 years and have to live in fear of not being able to live with the love your life at his or her next post because you can't get insurance is an awful feeling. WE NEED TO FIGHT FOR ALL BENEFITS! Especially the ones we REALLY NEED.

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