Yesterday’s 5-4 Supreme Court decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 federal law that defined marriage as between a man and a woman, opened up more than 1,000 benefits to same-sex married couples.
While the decision has enormous implications for taxes and immigration, the institution that could see some of the swiftest and most profound benefits changes is the military.
In December 2010, President Obama signed the repeal of Title 10, U.S. Code, Section 654, otherwise known as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. For just shy of 17 years, that policy prohibited gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. Shortly after the repeal, the service branches published guidelines for how it would affect day-to-day operations.
Some benefits immediately became open to same-sex spouses: service members could designate their same-sex spouse beneficiaries for life insurance; a same-sex spouse could be listed as the primary recipient for casualty notification and to be presented the U.S. flag at a military funeral.
Yet for the largest benefits that most greatly affect troops’ day-to-day lives, DOMA stood in the way. In January 2011, while I was serving as the intelligence officer in an Army Reserve brigade, I attended a series of briefings by Army lawyers explaining commanders’ responsibilities after the repeal. The main points were simple: gay service members could now serve openly and could not be kicked out of the military because of their sexual orientation. Officer after officer asked the lawyers about some of the most important benefits and the answer was the same: “Until DOMA isn’t the law anymore, there’s nothing you can do.”
Under DOMA, gay and lesbian service members couldn’t claim their spouses as dependents. Even though they had been legally married in one state, the federal government didn’t recognize their marriage.
Perhaps the two largest implications of DOMA were on medical care and housing. In the military, medical care, in most cases, is virtually free, and dependents are covered under a service member’s plan. But under DOMA, same-sex spouses weren’t covered, forcing them to seek medical coverage elsewhere.
The military’s Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH as it’s known) was another huge issue.
Service members can apply to live on base, but depending on where they’re stationed, there may be few on-post quarters (and under DOMA, same-sex couples couldn’t apply for married housing). If troops live off of the base, they receive a BAH, which is tied to the housing prices where they’re serving. If they happen to be posted at Fort Dix, N.J., they would receive a higher BAH than at Fort Riley, Kan.
Housing allowances also vary if a service member is single or has dependents, and here was one biggest differences for troops under DOMA. Let’s take the BAH at Fort Hood, Texas, where I was stationed for four years. A major at Fort Hood with dependents gets $1,689 per month, while a major without dependents gets about $400 less — a gap of some $5,000 annually. That could be the difference between buying — or renting — a house.
With DOMA no longer a factor, same-sex married couples are also eligible for family separation pay, $250 a month for deployments and temporary duties that keep troops away from their families.
Shortly after the Supreme Court decision, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that “the Department of Defense intends to make the same benefits available to all military spouses — regardless of sexual orientation — as soon as possible.” The Pentagon said that it could take six to 12 weeks to overhaul the system to give identifications cards to same-sex spouses of military members, which allow them to use base facilities.
Over the next few months, the changes in benefits will be a big issue for commanders at all levels. One of the responsibilities of command is taking care of your troops and their families, and a big part of that is knowing what benefits they’re entitled to and making sure they receive them.
But Wednesday’s Supreme Court decision is about much more than money.
After the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — but while DOMA remained the law of the land — homosexual service members, by virtue of the fact that they couldn’t receive the same benefits as their heterosexual counterparts, were treated as second-class citizens. After Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’s repeal, the Navy policy said that an important aspect of the strength of the force was “treating all people with respect and dignity, regardless of sexual orientation.”
By most accounts, over the past year and a half, commanders in all of the services have followed that order. With the death of DOMA, the federal government is finally doing the same.