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What’s Goin’ On: Military Same-Sex Partner Benefits

10 Apr 2013 | Lance Cpl. Uriel Avendano

On Monday, February 11, 2013, the Department of Defense opened previously unavailable benefits to same sex domestic partners of military members in a memorandum. The extension of benefits is expected to be implemented no earlier than Aug. 31, 2013, but no later than Oct. 1, 2013.

In the memorandum titled, “Extending Benefits to Same-Sex Domestic Partners of Military Members,” Defense Secretary Leon E. Pannetta outlined the upgrades to benefits the Department of Defense will provide to all service members and their families, regardless of sexual orientation, to the extent permissible by current federal law.

Due to the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, service members in same sex domestic partnerships are not granted many military benefits. Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) or health insurance still remain off the table until the Supreme Court rules on the validity of DOMA; a ruling that is expected to take place later this year.

“There are things that aren’t available to same sex partners right now. Things like BAH, healthcare - Because that’s all contingent on DOMA,” said Capt. Vanesa E. Sigala, Marine Corps Air Station Yuma’s Deputy Staff Judge Advocate and a native of Los Angeles. “So, you can be married in New York, lawfully, but the federal government will not recognize it.”

What keeps these rights from being extended to same sex domestic partnerships is DOMA’s particular definition of marriage. Namely, DOMA’s federally recognized definition of marriage only exclusively between a man and a woman. This, for service members and their same sex partners, means being denied identification cards for on-base access, health and dental care benefits, survivor payments, emergency leave, on-base child care support programs, legal assistance, sexual assault counseling support, BAH and a number of other significant benefits and support structures normally afforded to wedded couples.

“Even if Arizona had to honor a New York same-sex marriage, it wouldn’t change DOMA,” said Sigala. “We operate in a federal realm, not a state one.”

The coming changes can only extend within the bounds of our current federal laws. There’s a certain discretion involved in the new permissions service members in same-sex domestic partnerships will be granted. To that end, the benefits go up until the point that demands one’s lawful partner is of the opposite sex, man or woman.

The new benefits will include:

Dependent identification cards (renewed in accordance with existing policies)
Commissary and exchange privileges
Morale, welfare and recreation programs
Surveys of military families
Quadrennial quality of life review
Emergency leave
Emergency leave of absence
Youth sponsorship program
Youth programs; family center programs
Sexual assault counseling programs
Joint duty assignments
Exemption from hostile-fire areas
Transportation to and from certain places of employment and on military instillations
Transportation to and from primary and secondary school for minor dependents
Authority of service secretary to transport remains of a dependent
Disability and death compensation: dependents of members held as captives
Payments to missing persons
Space-available travel on DoD aircraft
Child care
Legal assistance

Eligibility for the new benefits calls for a signed declaration, “…attesting to the existence of a committed relationship.” The “Declaration of Domestic Partnership” is expected to be implemented in the coming months and will serve as the official form by which same-sex couples, and their children, will be made eligible for the new benefits.

The two-page form reads like a basic contract, outlining legal requirements and certain terms under the law. It also requires a date the domestic partnership was formed, as well as a common residence or an explanation as to why there is no common residence.

These changes are a step toward a very likely future. Regardless of whether DOMA is upheld or declared unconstitutional in the summer, the results will undoubtedly have immediate implications on how the Department of Defense, as a federal and military institution, moves forward. The decision will, more importantly, resonate with the individual service member and their ability to support the ones they love.

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