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.