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A Benefits Battle Looms

A Benefits Battle Looms

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As the saying goes, the military recruits soldiers, but it retains families.

And, it goes without saying, gay service members have families of their own.

How they will be treated in the incipient post-"don't ask, don't tell" era is an open question, though the current answer is, quite simply, unequally. The subject was a pressing one for many attendees at the recent inaugural OutServe Armed Forces Leadership Summit, organized by a group that started as a small underground network of gay active duty service members and now reports 4,500 members in 45 chapters worldwide, including two in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It's also an issue seized upon by several Republican presidential hopefuls, however, as well as a handful of GOP House members spurred on by social conservative organizations determined to undermine open service. On Friday, as OutServe conference participants -- active duty and retired, out on the job or closeted at work -- arrived in Las Vegas to discuss topics from the stress of deployment to navigating available family benefits, one fervent anti-repeal congressman, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, alleged that attempts at bringing parity to gay service members is part of a devious strategy by the "homosexual lobby," one that "isn't simply pressing to have equal status in the military with people that are heterosexual."

"They would like a military takeover by the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community, and that's what they're going to keep pushing for until it happens," Hunter, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told Family Research Council's Tony Perkins on his radio show, Washington Watch (Perkins' organization cohosted the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C. earlier this month, a predictable buffet of antigay rhetoric).

Hunter's absurd claims track the diatribes used by Values Voter speakers at a convention that peddled swag from "Ex-Gay is OK!" buttons to "Don't Mess with Marriage" bracelets. But while DADT repeal is not going to spark some unspecified gay coup in the Armed Forces as Hunter contends, it has served to further highlight the inequities married gay couples face under the Defense of Marriage Act, and in a powerful way. If nearly four in five Americans were in favor of DADT repeal, will they now oppose unequal treatment of gay service members and their families?

Even simple tasks can be obstacles in the current landscape. "It can be so basic as the ability to go shopping in a base commissary to pick up a gallon of milk on the way home," said Army Lt. Col. Todd Burton of Arlington, Va., who attended the OutServe summit and came out Sept. 20 on the CBS Evening News as repeal became reality. "The ability to get on an installation to pick up a child -- those are very basic things that in the civilian world you don't really have to deal with. It's different when the military moves you around every couple of years, they decide where you're going to live, what you're going to do."

Emerging legal challenges by gay service members and veterans seeking to access the same benefits as their straight counterparts are therefore not surprising. Last week, Carmen Cardona, a disabled Navy veteran who was honorably discharged in 2000 and married her spouse in Connecticut last year, filed a lawsuit in the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims after she was denied an increase in monthly compensation following her marriage. A regional veterans affairs office cited the federal definition of spouse in rejecting the request.

"If you're legally married, you're not going to receive the two big benefits that are a significant part of your compensation: medical care and housing," Servicemembers Legal Defense Network executive director Aubrey Sarvis said of gay service members. DOMA is not the only culprit: Title 10 of the U.S. Code also defines "spouse" to the exclusion of married gay couples. (SLDN, as the Huffington Post reported Saturday, is preparing its own suit on behalf of service members.)

But the courts do not examine any issue in a social vacuum; educating the public on the unique challenges gay service members face will be crucial moving forward, advocates say.

Joining Forces, the White House's military families campaign launched by First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, did not explicitly include gay service members when it began in April. In a letter to the OutServe summit, read to the more than 200 attendees by Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Douglas B. Wilson, the First Lady offered at the very least a symbolic step forward, though whether Joining Forces could be an effective national platform for highlighting gay military families remains to be seen.

"Today, less than one percent of Americans serve in our military, but they bear 100 percent of the responsibility of protecting our Nation," Mrs. Obama wrote. "Until very recently, gay and lesbian Americans had to serve in silence, but in spite of this tremendous obstacle, service members like you persevered. ... I truly hope Joining Forces makes a real impact in your lives, and I hope it is worthy of the strength and commitment you and your families demonstrate every single day."

Wilson, who is the first openly gay assistant secretary in the Defense Department, said of Joining Forces, "The repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell' is a statement that part of that one percent are gay and lesbian troops, and that they have families, too."

SLDN and other groups are pushing for benefits not precluded under DOMA for those families, pointing to federal agencies such as the State Department, which under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton extended benefits including diplomatic passports and use of
medical facilities abroad to same-sex partners of foreign service officers. "I'm hopeful that the doors are going to continue to be open over there," Sarvis said of the Pentagon. "We've requested a sit-down meeting with [Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta] and I'm hopeful that that's going to come through in the next 30 days."

Of the benefits battle, Wilson said, "As you know, there's a [DADT] repeal implementation team at the Pentagon. The repeal part is done. The implementation part continues."

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