Chris Rowzee was about 7,000 miles away from home in 2005 when her appendix ruptured. It was a nightmare situation for the National Guard lieutenant colonel, who had been deployed to Kuwait the year before. Far worse, however, was that her partner of four years, Novia Engelhardt, only found out about it by chance.
As a full-time employee with the Air National Guard unit, part of Engelhardt’s job was to process casualty notices, and that’s how she she saw that Rowzee had been hospitalized with the VSII status–”very seriously ill or injured.” Had the two women been legally married and treated as any other heterosexual couple, Engelhardt would have received formal spousal notification, support from the military, and the opportunity to visit or get more information about Rowzee’s condition.
“That event sort of turned on a big light bulb in our relationship,” said Rowzee, now retired from the National Guard, to MSNBC. “We wanted to start a family, and we wouldn’t be able to do that unless something changed.”
Seven years later, something did. The Supreme Court in June struck down a key provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman, clearing the way for federal agencies–directed by the Obama administration–to recognize same-sex marriages, from Veterans Affairs to the IRS, and yes, the American military.
Beginning this month, same-sex military couples who are legally married should have been able enroll in programs such as the military’s health care and housing plans, but three National Guards units in the deep south are resisting. The National Guards of Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana have all decided to stall on processing requests for benefits from same-sex couples, citing their state constitutions, which do not recognize those marriages.
But these three states appear to be in the minority. MSNBC found that the National Guards in 25 of the 32 other states that have similar gay marriage bans will comply with the federal directive to treat gay couples equally. Three told MSNBC they were still deciding; and four never responded.
The states that will comply with the new marriage-equality ruling include some of the reddest in the nation: Oklahoma, Kansas, South Dakota, and Kentucky, where Rowzee was able to enroll and register for benefits under her now-wife’s Guard unit.
“That was really awesome,” said Rowzee. “In the civilian world, to friends and family and people we know, [Engelhardt’s] no longer my partner–she’s my wife. And in the military realm, I am now recognized legally as her spouse, and will be included in everything that being a spouse should be included in.”
Although Engelhardt serves as a master sergeant in the Kentucky Air National Guard, the couple lives in Indiana with their 16-month-old adopted son, Christopher James–“C.J.” Both states limit marriage to heterosexual couples, so the two women decided to get married in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 1 just days before they were eligible for the new benefits.
“If it wasn’t legal [where we lived,] there wasn’t a whole lot of point in getting married,” said Rowzee. “It wasn’t going to benefit us in the civilian world, and it wasn’t going to benefit us militarily.”
That changed, she said, “once DOMA fell.”
Receiving spousal benefits from the military will be very important to the newlyweds, said Rowzee, because their son has some medical problems. Now both she and C.J. will be covered under Engelhardt’s health care.
Rowzee, who now serves as the National Guard affairs liaison for the American Military Partner Association, said in an earlier conversation with MSNBC that she was “extremely disappointed” in the states choosing not to process benefits applications for same-sex couples. Having served in the National Guard for 20 years, four of them as director of personnel, she said the arguments being used by those states wouldn’t hold up.
“The number of personnel positions that are state funded is probably less than a handful in any given unit,” said Rowzee. “I don’t think they have a legal leg to stand on. They’re doing it for political points, and that’s a sad day when they will use our military members as a political football.”
Rose Richeson, spokesperson for the National Guard Bureau, the federal agency that liaises between the DOD and state Guards, explained the relationship between the two entities. Guardsmen serve a dual mission–both to the state and the federal governments–and must be prepared to jump into action, either overseas or in their home communities.
“The National Guard is unique in that it is the only component that abides by two Oaths-of-Office–one to the governor and one to the President of the United States,” she said in an email to MSNBC.
“We are aware Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi have determined that their military departments would not be in compliance with state law if they were to use their state-funded personnel and facilities in enrolling same-sex spouses of National Guard members,” said the Bureau in a separate statement.
The main problem with that argument, experts say, is that a majority of the funding that goes to National Guard personnel and facilities comes from the federal government, not the state.
“The federal DOD directive trumps anything in this area,” said Kevin Cieply, associate dean for academics at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School and a retired col. JAG officer, to MSNBC. “The National Guard is most of the time following federal guidelines, federal directive, spending federal funds. A very small portion of their operation is state funded.”
Cieply expects that those who choose to defy the DOD will face considerable legal challenges.
“To say they’re going to ignore a federal directive when almost all of the benefits come from the federal government–I just can’t see how that’s going to endure,” he said.
Here’s an MSNBC breakdown of the states that ban same-sex marriage and where they stand on the military’s directive to offer equal benefits for gay married couples.
States with same-sex marriage bans that will comply with the DOD:
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
States with same-sex marriage bans that are still deciding:
States with same-sex marriage bans that didn’t respond:
States with same-sex marriage bans that won’t process requests for benefits from same-sex couples: