The Pentagon announced on Wednesday the implementation of spousal benefits for gay service members following the U.S. Supreme Court decision against the Defense of Marriage Act — and plans to make these benefits available as soon as Sept. 3.
In a memo dated August 13, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced service members in same-sex marriages will receive the same benefits for their spouses delegated to U.S. troops in opposite-sex marriages, and designated Sept. 3 as the a target date for implementation. These benefits includes health and pension benefits that were previously unavailable under DOMA as well as housing benefits, which the Pentagon had previously withheld.
“It is now the department’s policy to treat all married military personnel equally,” Hagel writes. “The department will construe the words ‘spouse’ and ‘marriage’ to include same-sex spouses and marriages, and the Department will work to make the same benefits available to all military spouses, regardless of whether they’re in a same-sex or opposite-sex marriage.”
The memo follows up on Hagel’s announcement at the end of June immediately following the Supreme Court decision against DOMA that the Pentagon would work to implement these benefits. Additionally, the memo culminates the effort announced in February to implement to provide benefits to gay troops that were available even under that law, such as military IDs and access to family services.
The document is along the lines of what the Associated Press reported last week that the Pentagon was preparing to make final for the implementation of benefits for gay troops.
As such, the memo retracts a previous pledge to allow troops in domestic partnerships to have certain benefits. Instead, it offers gay troops stationed in places without marriage equality leave to travel to another state to marry. The memo says the Pentagon will recognize same-sex marriages of service members even in states that don’t recognize same-sex marriage.
“This will provide accelerated access to the full range of benefits offered to married military couples throughout the Department and help level the playing field between opposite-sex and same-sex couples seeking to be married,” Hagel writes.
In a supplemental memo dated Aug. 13 also made public on Wednesday, Acting Under Secretary of Defense of Personnel & Readiness Jessica Wright lays out additional details for the rules governing gay troops seeking spousal benefits, citing the need for technical changes in current policy.
“Extension of benefits to same-sex spouses will require some policy revisions, and in the case of identification cards, technical upgrades as the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System currently does not authorize the issuance of an identification card to a spouse of the same gender,” Wright writes.
The Washington Blade reported last week that gay service members were unable to enroll for benefits through DEERS because it’s set up in a way that only facilitates opposite-sex marriages.
Wright also details the leave process for service members in same-sex relationships who are seeking to marry, saying non-chargeable leave will be granted for troops who are more than 100 miles away from a U.S. jurisdiction where same-sex marriage is legal.
According to the memo, if the service member is the stationed within the continental United States, the Pentagon will grant non-chargeable leave for a period of up to seven days. For a service members stationed outside the continental United States, the Pentagon will grant a leave period of up to 10 days.
“Extensions of this non-chargeable leave period for the convenience of the service member(s) will be charged to the member’s leave account,” Wright concludes. “Marriage leave may be granted only once during the career of a service member.”
Wright says troops will be entitled to these benefits retroactively to the date of the Supreme Court decision against DOMA on June 26, but claims to entitlement before that time “will not be granted.”
Praise for the implementation of these benefits came from Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.,) a U.S. House member who has been vocal about providing them to gay service members.
“I am especially pleased that military personnel based in those states where same-sex marriage remains illegal will be offered leave to travel to a jurisdiction that permits same-sex marriage, and I look forward to the day when such travel is no longer necessary,” Schiff said. “Our military men and women sacrifice every day to defend freedom and equality around the world. The least we can do is make sure they enjoy that equality here at home.”
Expectations that the Pentagon would announce on Wednesday it the implementation of these benefits for troops with same-sex partners was first reported Tuesday evening by NBC News.
Stephen Peters, president of the LGBT military group known as the American Military Partners Association, responded to the NBC News report by praising the move as “a huge step forward.”
“The extension of equal benefits for all legally married spouses, regardless of sexual orientation, is a huge step forward for our families who for far too long have been excluded and cut off from support,” Peters said. ”While this is a huge step forward in making sure our same-sex military spouses have equal access, we still have a long battle ahead of us in making sure all of our LGBT military families have equal protection in all 50 states.”
Not explicitly addressed in the memo is whether gay veterans would also have the same access to spousal benefits as their straight counterparts. Title 38 under U.S. code, which governs veterans benefits, defines spouse in opposite-sex terms independently of DOMA and related statutes look to the state of residence as opposed to the state of celebration to determine whether a couple is married. To extent to which gay U.S. troops will be eligible for veteran spousal benefits in the aftermath of DOMA is still unclear.