The Department of Defense will move quickly to extend the same benefits to same-sex married couples as it does to heterosexual married couples, from factoring in the spouse for housing allowance to burial at Arlington National Cemetery, the Pentagon said on Wednesday.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s announcement followed the Supreme Court’s decision striking down a 1996 federal law that recognizes marriages only between a man and a woman, and President Obama’s subsequent order to have all current federal statutes put in compliance with the ruling.
Hagel, who once opposed allowing gays to serve openly in the military, said in his statement he “welcomes the Supreme Court’s decision today [overturning] the Defense of Marriage Act and that DoD “intends to make the same benefits available to all military spouses – regardless of sexual orientation – as soon as possible.”
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters during an afternoon joint press conference with Hagel that “the Joint Chiefs have made it clear, we’ll follow the law of the land, and the law of the land just changed.”
Neither Hagel nor Dempsey offered much in the way of specifics – either a timeline, the additional costs to be incurred by extending benefits to same-sex military families or even whether the Pentagon can guaranty that same-sex married troops serving in states that have laws defining marriage as an intuition between a man and a woman will be able to get federal benefits. The Pentagon also said it is looking at what same-sex married troops will mean for overseas tours to countries that don't recognize same sex relationships, let alone marriages.
Allyson Robinson, an Army veteran and executive director of OutServe-Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, acknowledges that reworking Status of Forces Agreements to accommodate the new reality of same-sex married troops will be “a challenge.” The U.S. military has bases all across the world, and some host countries have laws against same-sex relationships.
“While we recognize these challenges would expect that married gay and lesbian service members would have the same opportunity for these accompanied overseas tours as any other married service member,” she said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “That’s the standard DoD has already set for itself.”
Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon that there is still much research and work to be done to know how the end of DOMA will play out in every area.
“I have read the basic [Supreme Court] opinion. I have not talked to any lawyers about it,” Hagel said. “I’ve got a responsibility to carry out the law of the land, the decisions the Supreme Court made today … obviously we’re going to deal with the Justice Department and all the other executive offices to comply that law of the land, which we’re very pleased to do and will do and do it expeditiously, but beyond that I don’t know. I don’t want to go any further than that because I don’t know.”
Dempsey defended the Defense Department against the impression, held by some, he said, that the military “will find a way to fight this or fight that” when it comes to gays serving in the military.
“We actually have done what I think is a very credible job of ensuring as much equality as we can possibly provide to the men and women who serve this country in uniform voluntarily,” he said, “and we will do what we can for them within the limits of the law, but we haven’t had time to figure out what is yet.”
What the Pentagon has said, however, is that it will make available to same-sex spouses all the benefits currently extended to opposite-sex spouses, including with-dependent Basic Allowance for Housing, medical and dental care, and interment at Arlington National Cemetery.
While a U.S. Senator Hagel supported the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy that allowed gays and lesbians to serve in the military as long as they were not open about their sexuality. His opposition to repealing the law came back to haunt him when gay rights groups initially came out in opposition his nominated to be Secretary of Defense.
Hagel successfully overcame the opposition with a commitment to ensuring gays would be fully welcome in the military. That sentiment was also expressed in his prepared statement on Wednesday.
“Every person who serves our nation in uniform stepped forward with courage and commitment,” he said. “All that matters is their patriotism, their willingness to serve their country and their qualifications to do so. Today’s ruling helps ensure that all men and women who serve this country can be treated fairly and equally, with the full dignity and respect they so richly deserve.”