August 7, 2013 at 5:13 pm EST | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
DOD computer glitch delays benefits for gay spouses
Jeff Zarillo, Paul Katami, Sandy Stier, Kris Perry, David Boies, Chad Griffin, gay marriage, same-sex marriage, marriage equality, Proposition 8, Defense of Marriage Act, DOMA, Prop 8, California, Supreme Court, gay news, Washington Blade

Defense Department (DOD) computers are encountering problems in registering same-sex partners for military benefits in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling striking down a key provision of DOMA. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Kelly Egan, a retired chief master sergeant who served 20 years in the Air Force, says she watched with great interest in June when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA.

With the White House and Pentagon announcing that the government would move quickly to ensure that same-sex spouses of federal civilian and military personnel would be eligible for full spousal benefits that had long been denied under DOMA, Egan says she took steps to add her wife as a beneficiary for her military survivor benefit program.

Much to her disappointment, Egan says, her application for the benefit for her wife was denied – not by the military officials with whom she spoke but by the Defense Enrollment and Eligibility Reporting System, or DEERS, a massive computerized database system operated by the Department of Defense.

“The whole screen went black,” Egan told the Blade in describing what happened when a polite benefits clerk at the Pentagon entered her application into a computer terminal. According to Egan, the computer glitch was triggered by the fact that she and her spouse are of the same gender.

“They told me they hope to get this fixed in September,” Egan said. “They said it’s a software issue. But if I should die now, my wife is out of luck.”

Egan said she was told that the same problem is surfacing for active duty and retired military members who are applying for benefits for same-sex spouses both in the U.S. and in military installations overseas.

“The Department of Defense is working alongside the Department of Justice to implement the Court’s decision as quickly as possible,” said Lt. Commander Nate Christensen, a DOD spokesperson, in an email to the Blade. “At this time no decisions have been made,” he said.

A representative of the DEERS system’s regional office that processes benefits for D.C.-area military personnel and military retirees said the office would arrange for a spokesperson to discuss the issue of processing same-sex benefit requests. A spokesperson did not immediately respond.

Egan said the civilian staff member with whom she spoke at the Pentagon and another civilian staffer she visited at the U.S. Army base at Fort Myers in Arlington, Va., were cordial and expressed considerable interest in helping her. But she said they were unable to override the DEERS system’s computer program that steadfastly denied her application for the survivor benefit for her spouse.

“I went to Fort Myers first because the DEERS system can be accessed at any base,” she said. “The guy there was very nice and invited me to sit down. When I told him what I needed the first thing he said was, ‘Where is your husband.’” Egan recounted.

“I said, well, it’s my wife. And he said, OK, great. You’re the first one to come in for that.”

However, like the clerk at the Pentagon, the Fort Myers staffer could not get past the DEERS system block in processing a same-sex spouse.

David McKean, an attorney and former legal director for OutServe-Service Members Legal Defense Network, a group that has assisted LGBT military members, said DOD officials told him six weeks ago that DOD was working hard to fix the problem.

“It is the single point of entry to be qualified for all military benefits,” McKean said of DEERS. “In order to get an I.D. card, in order to have your spouse to qualify for housing or to get health insurance – all that stuff – requires registration in DEERS,” he said.

“And the DEERS system, when you enter your [same-sex] spouse and show your marriage license, as you’re required to do, you get an error message,” he said. “As far as I can tell, this is the only barrier to extending same-sex spouse benefits in the military.”

McKean said he was hopeful that DOD officials, who are aware of the problem, can fix it soon. He said DOD officials told him that people like Kelly Egan and other retired or active duty military members, will have their benefits back dated to June 26, the day the Supreme Court issued its DOMA decision, once the computer programs are corrected.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

  • Michael Bedwell

    BALDERDASH!!! Changing the computer system in order to issue military ID cards through DEERS for same sex domestic partners in the military [the SAME first step in the process that would be required for Ms. Egan] was supposed to start MONTHS ago—BEFORE the Supreme’s June DOMA ruling—according to the February promise of then-SECDEF Leon Panetta. WHY, obviously, has NOTHING been done? ANSWER: because a mix of incompetents and recalcitrant homophobes in the Pentagon are wagging the dog, CONTINUING to get away with denying equality to as many military gays for as long as they can—and SECDEF Hagel and the Commander-in-Chief don’t give a damn—and the gay community is LETTING it happen. Panetta memo:

  • Deegan

    #1 That’s me and my wife in that picture! TeeHee!! Thanks Michael Key!
    #2 Two days after the decision, I took my wife and our marriage certificate to base to have her put in DEERS. While the clerk was very sweet and welcoming…and apologetic…we had the same result. It’s software code. I don’t see what the holdup is. I’m sure looking forward to the check for backpay though…

  • Kelly Egan

    Thanks, Lou. You did a great job on the article. I have to comment on the last paragraph, however (the quote from Mr McKean … “people like Kelly Egan and other retired or active duty military members, will have their benefits back dated to June 26, the day the Supreme Court issued its DOMA decision, once the computer programs are corrected”). With my situation, I can’t get survivor benefits for my wife. They can’t backdate survivor benefits since I can’t sign up for them. If I were to die tomorrow, there would be no proof that I wanted survivor benefits for my wife. Therefore, she would not receive them. I did happen to write down my intentions and get it notarized, but it doesn’t make me confident that it would hold up in a court of law.

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