Most benefits extended to gay military

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta issued a memorandum to the armed services branches Monday ordering the extension of 22 educational, survivor, travel, and transportation benefits to the “same-sex domestic partners” of service members.

The two-page memorandum with attachments includes a “Declaration of Domestic Partnership” form that service members can use to identify the domestic partner.

The benefits Panetta identified as newly extended dependent identification cards, access to commissaries and exchanges, emergency leaves, joint duty assignments, disability and death compensation, child care, and space-available travel on military aircraft.

OutServe-Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) hedged somewhat in its reaction, praising the action but noting that the Pentagon did not extend two to three benefits OutServe believes it could extend, despite the existence of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Those missing benefits include on-base housing, burial rights at national cemeteries, and travel to visit service members overseas.

Panetta said the additional benefits mark the full implementation of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell –a repeal enacted by Congress in 2010 to end the ban on openly gay service members initially passed by Congress in 1993.

“Today, our military leaders are ensuring that all America’s sons and daughters who volunteer to serve our Nation in uniform are treated with equal dignity and respect, regardless of their sexual orientation,” said Panetta. Panetta noted that implementation of the changes in benefits will require “substantial policy revision, training and in the case of identification cards, technical upgrades.” But he set October 1 as the department’s deadline for issuance of the identification cards.

Panetta’s memo noted that some benefits –such as on-base housing, burial, and certain overseas sponsorship designations—present “complex legal and policy challenges due to their nexus to statutorily-prohibited benefits and due to ongoing reviews about how best to provide scarce resources.” But he said DOD would continue to review these benefits “to determine how best to ensure that all Service members are treated equally regardless of sexual orientation.”

Panetta noted that DOMA prevents the department from extending certain benefits, such as health care and housing allowances, because they are “currently only available to spouses and therefore cannot be made available to same-sex domestic partners….”

“In the event that [DOMA] is no longer applicable to the Department of Defense,” said Panetta, “it will be the policy of the Department to construe the words ‘spouse’ and ‘marriage’ without regard to sexual orientation, and married couples, irrespective of sexual orientation, and their dependents, will be granted full military benefits.”

Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin issued a statement Monday, calling Panetta’s memo an “historic step toward righting the wrong of inequality in our armed forces.” But he, too, noted “there is still more work to be done,” including repeal of DOMA.

“Gay and lesbian service members and their families make sacrifices every day,” said Griffin, “and this country owes them every measure of support we can provide.”

In a related development, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted along party lines February 12 to advance the nomination of Chuck Hagel to replace Panetta. The full Senate could vote as soon as February 14.

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