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.”