The tide of LGBT civil rights is not only arcing toward justice – but more and more straight folks are finding antigay discrimination intolerable to abide. A recent New York Times article documenting stories of untenable and cruel discrimination in the US military toward same sex spouses of military personnel – some of whom are on the frontlines of war – prompted California Rep. Adam Schiff to circulate a letter among his colleagues calling on outgoing Defense Sec. Leon Panetta to provide those partners with equal benefits – a policy position even more urgent now that the DOD has lifted the ban on women serving in combat. At a Jan. 24 news conference, Panetta said that 152 women in uniform have died serving their country. As Tom Carpenter wrote last year, SSGT Donna Johnson, a member of the North Carolina National Guard, was killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan. She is survived by her wife and family. She was no doubt not the only lesbian or bisexual woman to die in uniform. And other same sex partners and families of lesbian or gay military personnel – such as Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan, her wife Karen and their child – routinely face a different kind of combat trying to get justice and equality in benefits automatically afforded straight members of the military.
Here’s an excerpt from The Times story:
Nakisha Hardy spent the first nine months of her marriage on a remote Army base in Afghanistan, a tour of duty punctuated by sporadic mortar blasts and constant e-mails to her spouse back home.
The strains of that separation lingered even after First Lt. Hardy returned to Fort Bragg in September. So she signed up for a military retreat to help soldiers and their husbands and wives cope with the pressures of deployments and relocations.
But less than 24 hours after arriving at the retreat, she and her spouse were told to leave. The military chaplains who organized the program last month said that the couple was making others uncomfortable. They said they had determined that under federal law the program could serve only heterosexual married couples…..
“I felt hurt, humiliated,” said Lieutenant Hardy, 28. “These were people I had been deployed with. And they were telling me I can go to fight the war on terrorism with them, but I can’t attend a seminar with them to keep my marriage healthy.”
Schiff urges Panetta to allow same-sex spouses to be granted military identification cards, access to Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) programs, and allow access to family programs like deployment support, marriage and family counseling, relocation assistance and financial management.
“While Congress must repeal DOMA to make sure all of the benefits of marriage are available to all married couples and families, the Department of Defense can take administrative action to ease the burden and increase the inclusiveness of all of our service members and their families right now. It’s my hope that in Secretary Panetta’s final days with the department, he will take up this cause, and that the Administration will act,” Schiff says in the letter (see full letter below). “Department of Defense current policy is treating same sex service members, their spouses and families as second class citizens….. We strongly urge you take immediate action to rectify the inequality of benefits available to families of gay or lesbian service members.”
Schiff’s letter from the House follows news from California Barbara Boxer’s office on Jan. 14 that she endorsed her former colleague Chuck Hagel to replace Panetta after Hagel sent a letter promising to extend benefits to lesbian and gay families. Hagel wrote:
“I fully support the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010 and value the service of all those who fight for our country. I know firsthand the profound sacrifice our service members and their families make, and if confirmed as Secretary of Defense, I will do everything possible to the extent permissible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our service members.”
“Senator Hagel’s commitment is a turning point for our gay and lesbian military families. His promise to grant these service members the family benefits they have earned demonstrates his deepening grasp of the injustice currently being done to them,” said Army veteran and Outserve-SLDN Executive Director Allyson Robinson
But for nearly two years, OutServe-SLDN has been calling on the Pentagon to take action – an August 2011 letter to Secretary Leon Panetta provides a comprehensive list of these benefits.
Not mentioned in the The Times piece or by Schiff or Boxer is the urgency needed for this action – given the case of CWO Charlie Morgan, her wife, Karen and their daughter, Casey. Charlie is fighting for her life with stage 4 breast cancer. If she does not survive, Karen will not be provided the survivors’ benefits needed to care of their six year old daughter.
Immediately after Sec. Panetta signed the new policy about women serving in combat on Thursday, President Obama released the following statement:
“Today, by moving to open more military positions—including ground combat units—to women, our armed forces have taken another historic step toward harnessing the talents and skills of all our citizens. This milestone reflects the courageous and patriotic service of women through more than two centuries of American history and the indispensable role of women in today’s military. Many have made the ultimate sacrifice, including more than 150 women who have given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan—patriots whose sacrifices show that valor knows no gender.
Earlier today I called Secretary of Defense Panetta to express my strong support for this decision, which will strengthen our military, enhance our readiness, and be another step toward fulfilling our nation’s founding ideals of fairness and equality. I congratulate our military, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for the rigor that they have brought to this process. As Commander in Chief, I am absolutely confident that—as with the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’—the professionalism of our armed forces will ensure a smooth transition and keep our military the very best in the world. Today, every American can be proud that our military will grow even stronger with our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters playing a greater role in protecting this country we love.”
Please note the last line: “Today, every American can be proud that our military will grow even stronger with our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters playing a greater role in protecting this country we love.” Partners and families – a strong theme in Obama’s historic Inaugural address espousing his core belief in equality. But that core principal had been preceded by a difficult moment in April 2011 when a White House event launching First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden’s Joining Forces initiative for military families overtly excluded same sex families. Post-DADT repeal, however, there has been greater inclusion such as the very visible participation by the Military Partners and Families Coalition at the Commander-in-Chief Ball. But no word yet on whether President Obama or Defense Sec. Panetta will make an end-run around the so-called Defense of Marriage Act to help Charlie Morgan and her family or the families of Donna Johnson and others who did not make it into the New York Times story.
Schiff’s letter is being circulated in the House just as Hagel’s nomination is being taken up by the Senate. Here is the full letter:
Dear Secretary Panetta,
As you prepare to leave the Defense Department, please accept our gratitude for your years of service to the Nation, including your many years as a member of the House of Representatives.
During your tenure, the American military has taken the historic step of stopping discrimination against gay and lesbian service members by ending the policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), which allowed homosexuals to serve in the military, provided they did not reveal their sexual orientation. This change has not only made our military a truer reflection of the country it protects, but it has also occurred without any of the disruption that critics had predicted. Much of that is due to your leadership and the senior leadership of the Armed Services.
However, as a recent article in the New York Times illustrates, the end of DADT has not meant the end of unequal treatment of same sex spouses of U.S. service members, who are denied a wide range of services and benefits – from health insurance to pre-deployment counseling, to access to base commissaries. As long as they remain in place, these restrictions have the effect of perpetuating discrimination against same sex spouses and their families.
We understand that most of the benefits available to veterans, service members and their families are granted directly by Congress. Well over a hundred of these statutory benefits are contingent on marital status. These benefits will remain unavailable to legally married same-sex couples unless the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is repealed or declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court this year or individual statutes are modified by Congress. In the meantime, there are several executive actions that you can take to ease the burden and increase the inclusiveness of all of our service members and their families.
We strongly urge you to issue same sex spouses military identification cards and registration in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS). This is the easiest and simplest step to include same sex partners as part of the Department of Defense family.
We urge you to allow same sex partners access to Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) programs. Current regulations leave open to Installation Commanders the possibility of opening up limited access to certain MWR programs to guests and the general public. These exceptions would be applied regardless of sexual orientation or individual situations; in other words, a same-sex spouse could receive guest privileges, just as the girlfriend or boyfriend of a straight service member receives at present, and would likely be treated as any non-dependent member of the public.
We also urge you to allow same sex partners access to family programs. DoD uses a flexible definition of “family” for the purpose of implementing Family Centers and programming, but leaves it up to the individual Service Secretaries to determine eligibility. Thus, each branch of the service (and each installation commander) determines the extent to which same-sex spouses and partners have access to these programs, which include deployment support, marriage and family counseling, relocation assistance and financial management.
Department of Defense current policy is treating same sex service members, their spouses and families as second class citizens. As President Obama stated during his inaugural speech, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well.”
We strongly urge you take immediate action to rectify the inequality of benefits available to families of gay or lesbian service members.