Families Matter in Our Military. All Families

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Army veteran Brenda S. “Sue” Fulton, left, a U.S. Military Academy graduate, marries Penelope Dara Gnesin at West Point's Cadet Chapel on Dec. 1, 2012

West Point, the country’s oldest continuously operated military post and home to the eldest of all American military academies, held two weddings last week.

Every aspect of these weddings spoke to tradition. Each was held in a cadet chapel. Finely dressed brides graced the aisles while attendees stood in rapt attention. Both culminated in the traditional saber arch, which is the only fitting way to welcome a new spouse into the Army.

Yet one thing was different from the countless weddings I watched after my graduation there 11 years ago. For the first time since the Academy’s founding in 1802, those being wed were of the same sex, and their weddings were legal. For the alumni present, we saw our intensely traditional, Rockbound Highland Home respond a way some might expect. They celebrated it, for that’s the natural response when two people honor their conviction to each other with matrimony.

The irony of this display of apparent equality is that nowhere are the deleterious effects of the Defense of Marriage Act felt more acutely than in our nation’s military. For this reason, service members and veterans should be watching very closely as the Supreme Court proceeds to hear marriage-equality cases from across the U.S., having just agreed to review a challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act (as well as a challenge to California’s Proposition 8) on Friday.

Family Values

Families matter immensely to our military. As an infantry commander of nearly 200 troops, the only thing I spent more time on than supporting families was the training of soldiers.

Why was this? Simple. What we ask of our soldiers is tough stuff, but the stronger and more complete the team supporting them, the better they will do their jobs and the more likely all of us will get back alive. Strong families make soldiers more resilient and effective than they would otherwise be. When we are at war and ask ourselves “why we fight,” we simply need look no further than our spouses and children back home to see what we are protecting.

The military recognizes this value. Married soldiers, who make up more than half of the all-volunteer force, receive greater pay and benefits based upon family size. This simply makes good practical sense: married troops stay in longer, keeping more seasoned troops in the force, resulting in an unparalleled level of training and experience that heightens unit quality and soldier safety. Further, it is a cost-saving measure, reducing the number of new recruits requiring costly initial entry training that would be needed if retention were lower.

Double Standards

The couples legally married at West Point will find they get few of the benefits granted to every other military couple. Because of the Defense of Marriage Act, only opposite-sex marriages may be recognized by our military. The tradition of reciprocity on state-led issues suddenly does not apply. So if you are gay, the federal government will recognize your state-issued birth certificate, driver’s license and divorce decree. But your marriage license? Sorry. No such luck.

In the military, where double standards are an anathema, the disparity between how gay and straight couples are treated could not be more stark. Same-sex marriages are legal in many states; “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is history (to no ill effect); our Department of Defense publicly supports the equality, dignity and respect of all troops. Yet military leaders are barred from treating their troops equally. No wonder so many of my West Point classmates — military leaders — find this law abhorrent.

So what are the differences?

— A gay or lesbian couple can get hundreds of dollars less per month because of differences in benefits, but they pay higher taxes because they must each file as “single.”

— Need to visit the base to go to the hospital, drop kids at day care, buy food or see a counselor because your spouse has been deployed for a year? Sorry, that all requires access that the gay spouse does not have, because he or she cannot get a military ID card.

— Have a medical emergency? The gay spouse goes to a civilian provider and pays out of pocket, while the straight spouse simply goes to the military hospital and everything is covered.

— Moving? Gay couples can’t ship as much to their next duty station and have to pay the airplane ticket of the civilian spouse.

— If you’re dual military and gay, you could be sent to duty stations thousands of miles apart, even if you have kids.

— Foreign national spouses, met overseas, can’t even get into the country since no visa exists for them.

— And what if the deployed soldier dies or comes down with a terminal illness? The straight spouse gets all survivor benefits such as back pay and pensions. The gay spouse? Nothing.

Honor Their Service

In their Joining Forces campaign, Michelle Obama and Jill Biden have rightly repeated “Families serve too.” All families serve, and they all sacrifice — equally. But gay families will end up with less money, a smaller house, fewer possessions, less access to services, less access to unit events, more separation if both are in the military, less support if killed in action and second-class status. The fact that these families serve at all is a testament to the honor and dedication of the families of our armed forces.

At our most historic, tradition-bound institutions, gay marriages are happening, they are legal, and they are accepted. The loving support of these families increases our troops’ resilience and improves our national defense. In a military that despises double standards, and in a country that despises injustice, it’s time for the Supreme Court to affirm what history will show to be right: that marriage is sacred not just for a select few but for all loving adults to experience and treasure.

Jonathan Hopkins is a former U.S. Army captain who was honorably discharged under “Don’t ask, don’t tell” in August 2010. Mr. Hopkins graduated fourth in his class at West Point. He was deployed three times to Iraq and Afghanistan, earning three Bronze Stars, including one for valor. He is currently a fellow with the Truman National Security Project and serves on the board of OutServe-SLDN.