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Hagel to direct nat’l guards to offer same-sex benefits

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is directing national guard to process benefits applications for troops in same-sex marriages (Washington Blade file photo by Damien Salas).

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Thursday evening that he’s directing national guards throughout the country to process benefit applications for troops in same-sex marriages regardless of their state laws.

Hagel made the announcement during a speech before the Anti-Defamation League’s centennial meeting in New York City.

In his speech, the defense secretary spoke out against the decision by certain national guards to deny benefit applications for troops in same-sex marriages, referencing the directive he issued in August indicating spousal benefits for gay troops should be available worldwide after the Supreme Court decision against the Defense of Marriage Act.

“But several states today are refusing to issue these ID cards to same-sex spouses at National Guard facilities,” Hagel said. “Not only does this violate the states’ obligations under federal law, their actions have created hardship and inequality by forcing couples to travel long distances to federal military bases to obtain the ID cards they’re entitled to.”

Hagel said he’s directed the Chief of the National Guard Bureau Gen. Frank Grass “to take immediate action” to remedy this situation.

“At my direction, he will meet with the Adjutants General from the states where these ID cards are being declined and denied,” Hagel said. “The Adjutants General will be expected to comply with both lawful direction and DoD policy, in line with the practices of 45 other states and jurisdictions.”

A senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, counted nine states with national guards that are refusing to process benefit spousal applications for gay troops and said Hagel is “prepared to take further action” if these states don’t comply with Pentagon policy.

Asked by the Washington Blade what this “further action” would be, the senior defense action declined to speculate, but noted military ID cards are processed through federal funds.

“These are federal ID cards paid for with federal funding to provide federally mandated benefits,” the official said. “I’m not going to speculate on our legal options.”

Actions that advocates had previously posited include a restriction of federal funds at these facilities or, in an extreme case, the federalization of these national guards by President Obama.

The Washington Blade has previously reported that Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Oklahoma are refusing to enter the spouses of gay troops into the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System for the purposes of benefits, which include health and pension benefits, because of their state laws prohibiting same-sex marriage. Instead, they’ve directed troops in same-sex marriages to federal installations.

The national guard in South Carolina had opted out of processing benefit applications altogether and is directing all couples — gay and straight — to go to federal installations.

But the senior defense official also counted Indiana, Georgia, Florida and West Virginia as having made similar declarations, making for a total of nine states. According to the senior defense official, that means 114 Army and Air National Guard sites that are not providing ID cards to eligible same-sex spouses.

Advocates had been pressuring the Obama administration to take action. In a letter earlier this month, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the top defense Democrats in Congress, wrote to Hagel to encourage him to take action.

Stephen Peters, president of American Military Partners Association, heaped praised on Hagel for taking action against these national guards that weren’t complying with Pentagon policy.

“Secretary Hagel has made it clear the national guard in these few rogue states are failing to live up to their obligations to military families under federal law,” Peters said. “We applaud him in showing strong leadership by ordering the national guard in these states to comply and follow lawful direction and DoD policy. No matter what state of our great nation they serve in, no military spouse should be treated differently just because of their orientation.”

Hagel said in his speech that all members of the national guard are entitled to the same benefits because they’re fighting for the same purpose.

“Whether they are responding to natural disasters here at home, in their states, or fighting in Afghanistan, our National Guardsmen all wear the uniform of the United States of America,” Hagel said. “They are serving this country. They – and their families – are entitled to all the benefits and respect accorded to all of our military men and women.”