(Editor’s note: Attorney, former Marine Capt and Servicemember Legal Defense Network (SLDN) boardmember Tom Carpenter, who’s been involved with lifting the ban on open service since the Campaign for Military Service and has served on the SLDN board for 16 years, is excited about the upcoming merger of SLDN with OutServe announced last week. He also intends to remain an independent voice, prodding when necessary. And such prodding is imperative. While the recent introduction of the Military Spouses Equal Treatment Act of 2012 is welcome, given the Tea Party-controlled Congress and the plodding military during the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal, the bill will not help the family of Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan, who is dying of breast cancer. Carpenter says some benefits can be handled by the stroke of a pen and challenges the promising rhetoric by the President, the Defense Department and the Pentagon – asking “Where’s the Beef?” –Karen Ocamb)
Hey Pentagon – Where’s the Beef?
By Tom Carpenter, attorney, former Marine Captain
As Karen talked about earlier, the recent euphoria over a White House reception honoring the LGBT community’s contribution to the nation, followed shortly thereafter by an announcement from Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta formally recognizing LGBT service members and civilian Department of Defense (DoD) employees – and finally the first ever Pentagon LGBT Pride Month Event – reminded me of that great Wendy’s 1980’s commercial, “Where’s the beef?”
Sure, President Obama has done more to advance the rights of LGBT citizens then all the other presidents combined and we are grateful. However, he has also been clear in challenging us to challenge him. In his moving statement at the White House reception on June 15, 2012, President Obama said: “After decades of inaction and indifference, you have every reason and right to push, loudly and forcefully, for equality.”
And that is exactly what we should, and must, continue to do.
The DoD is not known for its nimbleness or ability to accomplish any mission quickly. Compare the two page memorandum memorandum used by our British allies to almost instantaneously change their personnel policy regarding open LGBT service with the two-year process the DoD required to study, survey the force, gain buy in and implement the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) law. It has taken the Pentagon longer to reach this point in the implementation process then to execute the withdrawal from Iraq and plan the reduction in forces in Afghanistan. Even with this slow and arduous process the DoD punted on some of the more serious issues- particularly family benefits.
It has been over a year and a half since the report recommended revisiting the issue of family benefits for GLB service members in committed relationships, and Congress repealed the DADT law. The Pentagon has not provided one additional benefit. The letters written by Servicemembers Legal Defense Network to Secretary Panetta asking what progress has been made regarding these benefits, which could be easily granted by changes in the DoD regulations, remain unanswered.
Meanwhile, as the Pentagon was still studying the issue of family benefits, on April 13, 2011, the Chief of the Navy Chaplains, RADM Mark Tidd, took a bold step advancing the religious rights of LGB sailors and Marines. He sent a memorandum to his fellow Navy chaplains allowing those whose faith group permitted them to celebrate same-sex unions, in states where that was legal, to do so using base chapels.
Within a month, the Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, received a letter signed by 63 conservative members of Congress, objecting to chaplains officiating at such ceremonies. Unable to resist this political pressure, Admiral Tidd was forced to reverse course and suspended this policy.
On September 30, 2011, just 10 days after repeal of DADT was finally implemented, the civilian leadership of the DoD finally saw the light, and again reversed course. Recognizing the Constitution’s First Amendment right of the free exercise of religion, they not only reinstating Adm. Tidd’s enlightened policy for the Navy and Marine Corps but went much further, making it applicable to all the Armed Services.
So the chaplains have been doing their job, carrying out their duties, their mission. In May, another courageous Army chaplain performed a same-sex ceremony for a couple at the installation Chapel at Fort Polk, Louisiana. This exercise of religious freedom brought a firestorm of criticism by conservative Republican congressmen, as well as many right wing groups.
Recently, another wedding took place at Joint Base McQuire-Dix- Lakewood in New Jersey, a state that allows civil unions. The chaplain who performed the ceremony was Navy LCDR Kay Reeb, a chaplain endorsed by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a denomination that permits such religious ceremonies. She was carrying out her constitutional duty to “Perform or provide” the religious rites requested by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Erwynn Umali and his partner, Will Behrens.
So, in spite of the expected backlash from those opposed to marriage equality and who claim to believe in the exercise of religious freedom, so long as the relgion is theirs, chaplains continue to be frontline leaders.
The problem with even asking “Where’s the Beef” is that the meat is right in front of the top Pentagon and DoD leaders. With a mere stroke of the pen by Sec. of Defense Panetta, a number of important benefits now only available to opposite sex married couples, could be granted to same-sex couples in committed relationships. And while the Pentagon continues to drag its feet and be unresponsive, LGB service members are being harmed on a daily basis.
Take the situation of Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan and her wife, Karen. Charlie, a National Guard officer, is battling incurable stage IV breast cancer.
Trying to obtain all her family benefits before she dies, Charlie is fighting in the Courts and Congress for the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). President Obama could direct the Sec. of Defense to change current regulations TODAY, thus allowing Charlie, Karen and their child to receive some of the benefits she is entitled to. These benefits would include: an identification card allowing her wife to enter a military installation to take their child to the hospital, base housing, exchange and commissary privileges, deployment support, marriage and family counseling, relocation, financial management, and free legal assistance, to name a few of the rights they are being denied by this administration.
And even though Charlie attended that exciting White House reception – President Obama and SecDef Panetta have failed to act, failed to make this easy fix, failed to execute leadership in the face of Charlie Morgan’s slow death in front of them.
DoD General Counsel, Jeh Johnson – the keynote speaker at the first ever Pentagon Pride Month Event on June 26, 2012 – should be commended for his support during the DADT repeal effort. But while he admitted that: “There were inequalities between similarly situated couples in the military community” and recognized that this troubled military leaders – Johnson failed to announce plans to correct the recognized and troubling problem, blaming DOMA.
“Because of the number of benefits that are provided to our military community and the complex legal and regulatory framework, the process has been comprehensive and time consuming, but it will get done,” Johnson said. But as an attorney who worked with LGBT groups seeking civil rights, Johnson knows that justice delayed is justice denied – with no plan or timeline for fixing what everyone agrees is an inexcusable injustice.
Jeh Johnson’s speech was a perfect opportunity for the Pentagon to follow the courageous actions of LGBT servicemembers and civilians and military chaplains – and do the right thing. At the very least, he should have announced a change in DoD regulations that would give dying Charlie Morgan and her family, as well as thousands of other families, some of the benefits they have earned by their service to our country.
Platitudes are great, but action speaks louder than words. So, “where’s the beef?”