By Tom Philpott
With repeal last year of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell law, many military people, including senior leaders, assumed that married gay and lesbian couples had gained not only job security but also equality in allowances, benefits and access to family support. That assumption is wrong.
Since the law took effect 14 months ago, the Department of Defense has kept in place policies that bar spouses of same-gender couples from having military identification cards, shopping on base, living in base housing or participating in certain family support programs.
Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, says Army Lt. Col. Heather Mack, 39, “simply just prevented me from losing my job. It didn’t do anything else.”
Mack’s spouse, Ashley Broadway, also 39, can shop in stores on nearby Fort Bragg, N.C., only in the status of “caregiver” for their son, Carson. Lacking a military dependent ID card, Ashley has been challenged by checkout clerks when her shopping cart includes items such as deodorant that clearly aren’t needed by their 2-year old.
If Mack is reassigned, the couple will have to pay Ashley’s travel and transportation costs out of pocket. Mack draws housing allowance at the higher “with-dependents” rate only because of their child. Marriage alone for same-sex couples, though recognized as legal by 11 states and the District of Columbia, doesn’t qualify a military sponsor for married allowances or civilian spouses for entry onto bases.
If Mack were killed during her next deployment, Ashley would not qualify for full “spousal” survivor benefits, even though, by paying higher premiums, she could be covered as an “insurable interest.” And as a surviving widow, Ashley would not qualify for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation from the Department of Veterans or be eligible to receive the folded flag off the coffin at the graveside ceremony, Mack says, because, to the military and the VA, Ashley would not be next of kin, despite spending a career together.
A heterosexual soldier “who meets someone on a Friday night and Saturday gets married would have full benefits,” Mack says. “But you have partners who have been together 15 years or more and they can’t even go on base and shop. … That’s a quality-of-life issue.”
Some disparities of treatment for same-sex couples won’t end unless Congress repeals the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as solely between a man and a woman, or unless the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the law is unconstitutional. The high court was expected to announce soon if it will review and rule on conflicting opinions by appellate courts.
While the law remains in effect, it prohibits the extension of many federal benefits, including military allowances, travel reimbursements and health coverage to same-sex spouses. But Stephen L. Peters II, president of the gay and lesbian advocacy group American Military Partner Association, says DoD has authority to do much more.
It could give gay and lesbian spouses access to base housing, commissaries and exchanges, base recreation facilities and legal services. It could direct the services to open more family programs to them and to offer relocation and sponsorship at overseas duty stations.
No DoD official would be interviewed on this issue. The department instead issued a statement explaining that a work group continues to conduct “a deliberative and comprehensive review of the possibility of extending eligibility for benefits, when legally permitted, to same-sex domestic partners.”
Life in service is better for gays and lesbians since repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. But the department’s unresponsiveness to quality-of-life concerns of married members, unrelated to DOMA, continue to impact not only families but readiness, Peters argues.
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