Military Same-Sex Partner Benefits: “Separate But Not Equal”

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This image appears on the FaceBook pages of many members of the LGBT military group OutServe who are fighting for marriage equality.

The impact felt at the ground-level from our troops involved in same-sex marriages is gaining some high-level attention. On Friday of last week, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. issued this controversial letter to House Speaker John Boehner in response to the lawsuits filed this October in my home state of Massachusetts by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. The letter serves to notify Congress that the Executive Branch has determined the provisions excluding same-sex spouses from receiving military benefits to be unconstitutional.

With the state-level advances towards marriage equality we’ve already seen this month – New Jersey’s State Assembly and Washington state, who both passed bills in favor of gay marriage, as well as the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that declared California’s “Prop. 8” unconstitutional – there are some who believe the DoD might be the key to achieving the same results nation-wide, and they might be right. The importance of marriage equality resonates especially deep with gays and lesbians in the military. In addition to these victories, another case has been filed by former Army SGT. Tracey Cooper-Harris and her wife Maggie. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Battleland covered an earlier chapter of her story this past summer.

The lawsuit involving former SGT. Cooper-Harris – a decorated veteran who served honorably in OEF and OIF then separated from the military in 2003 – has been filed against the VA. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which has been linked to her service in the Army. Traditionally the VA will extend additional benefits to married couples for patients like Cooper-Harris, to help ensure the financial stability of the veteran and his/her spouse. In this veteran’s case the marriage entitlements were denied.

The target of the Cooper-Harris suit is to declare the Defense of Marriage Act (commonly referred to as DOMA) unconstitutional. The law has outlined the federal definition of marriage as the union between one man and one woman since it was signed in 1996. In the eyes of the US Department of Veteran’s Affairs, the federal law trumps any state-recognized same sex marriage and as a result they are unable to extend these two the same spousal benefits offered to other married couples, despite the fact that they are legally married in the state of California.

In a statement released by the Alabama based Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC),  who is representing the couple in court, former SGT. Cooper-Harris stated:

“I dedicated 12 years of my life to serving the country I love… I’m asking only for the same benefits the brave men and women who served beside me enjoy. By refusing to recognize our marriage, the federal government has deprived Maggie and me of the peace of mind that such benefits are meant to provide to veterans and their families.”

Prior to the repeal of Don’t Ask, those in favor of keeping the ban on gays serving in the military in effect argued that personnel issues would arise, and in a way they were right – albeit not in the manner they had originally anticipated. The foretold mass exodus of irate ground troops never happened (in fact military recruiting actually went up in the Oct-Dec quarter) and there has been no spike in sexual harassment. The only hiccup resulting from DADT repeal has been figuring out how to treat these men and women in uniform – at the risk of sounding redundant – uniformly. In the “one team, one fight” culture that exists within the military, it’s odd to see one group treated different than another, and it usually doesn’t go over well when that happens. Fixing a DoD-wide imbalance is a complicated process, especially when the letter of the law doesn’t allow it.

Since the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, couples can now participate in state-sponsored same-sex marriages. The lack of federal recognition puts the couple in a difficult spot, especially if both partners are actively serving in the military. Normally, a married couple can apply for a “join spouse assignment”, which greatly improves the couple’s chances of being stationed together. Since the average military member experiences a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) approximately every three years, this offers a level of stability for families, especially those with kids. Without this option, it is nearly impossible for a military couple to PCS to the same geographic location.

For couples involving one military member, and one civilian, the hardships are just as harsh. Civilian spouses without a dependent’s ID card can’t get on base, which causes further complications for military members who are required to live in on-base housing. They are also excluded from enrolling in the military’s Tricare program as a dependent, the way other spouses can, which means the responsibility of finding and paying for a parner’s healthcare rests on the family.

The list of less obvious impacts digs even deeper below the surface. There have been instances where a close family member of a civilian spouse has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and the military has approved a humanitarian PCS for the entire family to be reassigned to a base closer to the ill family member in order to help care for them and be with them at the end of his/her life. A same-sex couple would not have this option if the ill family member was on the civilian’s side of the family.

The hurdles of “separate but not equal” treatment faced by same-sex couples all across America are all too reminiscent of the now unthinkable discriminatory sentiments and policies faced by other minorities in the mid-1900s. The lack of options to help same-sex couples has the hands of commanders everywhere tied, and places a substantial burden on the shoulders of our troops in addition to the duties they already perform for this country. Heroes like SGT. Cooper-Harris have done their part to keep this country safe, and I don’t think it’s too much to ask for us to treat them with the same dignity and respect extended to the rest of our men and women in uniform.

The opinions expressed in this article reflect those of Karl Johnson. His views are his alone and do not reflect the opinions of the U.S. military, its branches, or any organization.