Same-sex military couples to get federal benefits

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Shyla Smith (R) and Courtney Burdeshaw (2nd R) wait to get married along with guests waiting for another wedding at the...
U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Shyla Smith (R) and Courtney Burdeshaw (2nd R) wait to get married along with guests waiting for another wedding at the...
Mario Tama/Getty Images

The Department of Defense said Wednesday it will extend federal benefits to same-sex spouses in the military after the Supreme Court cleared its way by ruling against DOMA earlier this year.
The new benefits arrive two years after the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the military’s ban on openly gay service members, and mark the government’s continued reaction to the Supreme Court’s June ruling that struck down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prevented federal agencies from recognizing same-sex marriages. Two weeks ago, the State Department also said that same-sex spouses applying for visas would no longer be treated differently than heterosexual spouses.
The announcement arrived with little fanfare on the department’s website Wednesday around lunch. Sec. of Defense Chuck Hagel had said after the DOMA ruling that he intended to make such benefits available to all married couples.

After a review of the department’s benefit policies following the Supreme Court’s ruling that Section Three of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional, and in consultation with the Department of Justice and other executive branch agencies, the Defense Department will make spousal and family benefits available no later than Sept. 3, 2013, regardless of sexual orientation, as long as service member-sponsors provide a valid marriage certificate.

The statement continued to say that the DOD “remains committed to ensuring that all men and women who serve in the U.S. military, and their families, are treated fairly and equally as the law directs.”
Stephen Peters, executive director of the American Military Partner Association, applauded the policy change, but said that until gay marriage is legal everywhere, challenges remain.
“This is great news because for far too long, [same-sex] families have been treated as if they don’t matter,” said Peters to msnbc Wednesday. “But there’s still a lot of challenges that our families will face in states without marriage equality.”
By Sept. 3, same-sex military couples will be able to enroll in programs such as TRICARE, the military’s health care plan, Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH,) which provides housing compensation to service members when government housing is not provided, and Family Separation Allowance (FSA,) which is payable to married service members or service members with dependents who serve an unaccompanied tour of duty. Claims to those entitlements will be granted retroactively to June 26, 2013–the day of the Supreme Court DOMA ruling.
For gay couples stationed in regions that do not allow them to marry, the DOD will allow “non-chargeable leave for the purpose of travelling to a jurisdiction where such a marriage may occur.” The DOD said it was doing so in order to provide the available benefits as quickly as possible and to level the “playing field” among its married employees–gay or heterosexual.
Peters said it will remain difficult for junior enlisted service members who earn a smaller salary to travel to a state that recognizes marriage equality, especially if stationed somewhere further afield like Alaska. The leave policy for gay service members to get married was a “positive gesture,” he said, “but it still doesn’t address the fundamental problem that exists for a few families who just can’t afford to travel that far.”
Veterans, whose benefits are administered by the Dept. of Veterans’ Affairs, were not referenced in Wednesday’s announcement. Their ability to gain spousal benefits remains in limbo.