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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 programs.
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 in 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 woman, or unless the U.S. Supreme Court rules that DOMA is unconstitutional. The high court was expected to announce soon if it will review and rule on conflicting opinions on the constitutionality of DOMA by appellate courts in recent years.
The Obama administration views the law unconstitutional and won't allow Justice Department attorneys to defend it in court. By default, the government's defense of DOMA is being led by the general counsel for the Republican-led House of Representatives.
While the law remains in effect, it prohibits 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 the Department of Defense has authority to do much more than it has to date to support service members and spouses of same-sex marriages.
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 support programs to them and to offer relocation and sponsorship at many overseas duty stations. The services could also extend dual-service couple programs to same-sex marriages thus ensuring these couples too get co-located on reassignments.
No Defense Department official would be interviewed on this issue. The department instead issue 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." Benefits are being examined "from a policy, fiscal, legal and feasibility perspective" and "laws and policies surrounding benefits are complex and interconnected." The work group, it says, has been striving "to fully understand the scope and interconnectivity."
Life in service is better for gays and lesbians since repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. But the department's unresponsiveness to qualify-of-life concerns raised by same-sex married members for the past year, unrelated to DOMA, continue to impact not only families but readiness, Peters argues.
"It's not like the Pentagon doesn't know which benefits it can extend. ... These have been repeatedly pointed out," he says. "Not only has the Pentagon failed to take action but its silence on the issue is deafening."
Mack, assistant chief of staff for the 1st Theater Sustainment Command at Bragg, is pregnant and due to deliver their second child in January. This time Ashley won't have to pose as her sister to be present at the birth in the post hospital. After maternity leave, Mack expects to deploy again.
She believes commanders would be pressuring policymakers on quality-of-life challenges for same-sex couples if they knew more about them. Mack own boss was surprised before Mack's promotion in October to be told the Army treats married lesbians like her as if they aren't married.
"He said, 'That's not true. With repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, you get all the benefits.' I said, 'No. Any gay or lesbian soldier, regardless of their marital status, is considered a single soldier.' He had no clue," Mack says.
As a lieutenant colonel, Mack knows she is better able to afford $500 a month in extra health insurance for Ashley, and to cover her travel costs when the family is reassigned. Enlisted members can't afford to handle these disparities, and that's something leaders can't ignore, she says.
If these spouses could at least be issued ID cards, and gain access to base amenities, she says, it would go a long way to improving quality of life.