Same-sex military families will begin to receive a number of benefits previously denied to them as early as this summer, the Department of Defense announced Monday.
In one of his last acts as defense secretary, Leon Panetta ordered the extension of certain benefits still denied to gay servicemembers more than a year after the September 2011 repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
"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 announcing the decision. "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."
Advocates, who have long pressed the Pentagon to act in the wake of the repeal of DADT, applauded the decision, despite the exclusion of certain key benefits from Panetta's order.
"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 OutServe-SLDN Executive Director Allyson Robinson in a statement. "We thank him for getting us a few steps closer to full equality – steps that will substantively improve the quality of life of gay and lesbian military families."
With Panetta calling for an implementation plan within 60 days, benefits should be extended by Aug. 31, though with a hard deadline of Oct. 1. According to a Pentagon official, the expanded benefits will affect an estimated 5,600 active-duty servicemembers, 3,400 National Guardsmen and reservists and 8,000 retirees. The Pentagon does not have estimates on how many children or other dependents will be impacted.
Panetta's order includes key benefits long called for by advocates, including military IDs for spouses of gay servicemembers, legal services and access to Morale, Welfare and Recreation programs. However, benefits such as health care and housing allowances were not included because of the definitions of "spouse" and "marriage" under the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
According to Panetta, those benefits can only be provided to spouses as defined by federal law, which does not recognize same-sex marriage.
"While it will not change during my tenure as secretary of defense, I foresee a time when the law will allow the department to grant full benefits to service members and their dependents, irrespective of sexual orientation," Panetta said. "Until then, the department will continue to comply with current law while doing all we can to take care of all soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and their families."
Also not included are on-base housing and burial benefits due to the "complex legal and policy challenges" these benefits present because of scarce resources.
The announcement comes after the Pentagon faced increased pressure from advocates following President Barack Obama's call for full equality for "our gay brothers and sisters" during his second inaugural address. Since the repeal of DADT in September 2011, the Pentagon has said it has been reviewing the legality of extending benefits to same-sex military families.
In a statement provided to Metro Weekly, White House spokesman Shin Inouye said the president welcomed the announcement from Panetta based on the Defense Department's "thorough and deliberate review of this issue."
"This step will strengthen our military and help ensure that all our troops and their families are treated with fairness and equality," Inouye said.
The extension of certain benefits was a win for advocates, but also a reminder of the obstacles that remain as long as DOMA is law. Just yesterday, Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan of the New Hampshire National Guard, who became a public advocate against DADT and DOMA, died of breast cancer. Due to DOMA, Morgan's widow, now a single parent to the couple's 5-year-old daughter, is ineligible for survivor and other military benefits.
"As encouraging as this step is for our military families, the passing yesterday of U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan and the needs of her family - needs in danger of going largely unmet because of the Defense of Marriage Act - reminds us of how far we still are from true equality," said Robinson. "I hope our Supreme Court Justices are watching as these events unfold, and that they see that striking down DOMA is the only way this unjust and untenable situation can be rectified."
According to Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, there will be no grandfathering of benefits.
"[E]ven today, the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act makes inequality for gay and lesbian military families a legal requirement," Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said in a statement.
Leaders on Capitol Hill who had urged the Pentagon to act welcomed Panetta's announcement with similar subdued applause. Although hailing Panetta for granting nearly all of the benefits possible under his power, members of Congress insisted that DOMA must be repealed for full equality.
Describing the Pentagon's decision as "only one step on the longer journey toward equality," Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said it "is now up to the justices of the Supreme Court to adhere to the best traditions of our history and Constitution, and act to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act once and for all."
Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who all wrote to Panetta urging him to act, reiterated that the fight to repeal DOMA continues. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), however, described the move as a "weak attempt to not violate the Defense of Marriage Act" that will increase costs.
"Once again, the President is eroding our military's apolitical stance and forcing conformity onto the rest of society by pushing his liberal social agenda through the Department of Defense," said Inhofe, who opposed the repeal of DADT and has criticized its implementation. "The Department of Defense is essentially creating a new class of beneficiary that will increase costs and demand for limited resources that are currently available for military families, active and reserve forces, and retirees."
The Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments on the constitutionality of DOMA on March 27 and issue a ruling by June, two months before the military's August deadline. House Republicans have spent nearly $3 million defending DOMA in court since the Obama administration stopped doing so in February 2011. The high court's ruling on DOMA has the potential to alter the number of benefits extended to same-sex military families.
Noting the possibility that DOMA might be struck down, Panetta writes in his memo that if that should happen "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."
[Photo: Leon Panetta (Courtesy of the Department of Defense)]
Read Panetta's memo here: