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Pentagon Extends New Benefits To Same-Sex Couples

marinesDefense Secretary Leon Panetta announced today that the Pentagon would extend benefits previously unavailable to same-sex couples and their families.

Among these benefits, OutServe-SLDN reports, are hospital visitation rights, child care, ID cards, legal assistance and disability and death compensation for soldiers held as captives. The Defense of Marriage Act, however, restricts access to other benefits including health care, burial rights at national cemeteries, housing and survivors’ benefits.

Panetta said in a statement:

Seventeen months ago, the United States military ended the policy of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’  We have implemented the repeal of that policy and made clear that discrimination based on sexual orientation has no place in the Department of Defense.

At the time of repeal, I committed to reviewing benefits that had not previously been available to same-sex partners based on existing law and policy.  It is a matter of fundamental equity that we provide similar benefits to all of those men and women in uniform who serve their country.  The department already provides a group of benefits that are member-designated.  Today, I am pleased to announce that after a thorough and deliberate review, the department will extend additional benefits to same-sex partners of service members.

Taking care of our service members and honoring the sacrifices of all military families are two core values of this nation.  Extending these benefits is an appropriate next step under current law to ensure that all service members receive equal support for what they do to protect this nation.

One of the legal limitations to providing all benefits at this time is the Defense of Marriage Act, which is still the law of the land.  There are certain benefits that can only be provided to spouses as defined by that law, which is now being reviewed by the United States Supreme Court.  While it will not change during my tenure as secretary of defense, I foresee a time when the law will allow the department to grant full benefits to service members and their dependents, irrespective of sexual orientation.  Until then, the department will continue to comply with current law while doing all we can to take care of all soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and their families.

While the implementation of additional benefits will require substantial policy revisions and training, it is my expectation that these benefits will be made available as expeditiously as possible.  One of the great successes at the Department of Defense has been the implementation of DADT repeal.  It has been highly professional and has strengthened our military community.  I am confident in the military services’ ability to effectively implement these changes over the coming months.

LGBT advocacy groups praised Panetta’s decision, including OutServe-SLDN Executive Director Allyson Robinson, who said that the Pentagon has done almost as much as it could with DOMA still in place.

“Secretary Panetta’s decision today answers the call President Obama issued in his inaugural address to complete our nation’s journey toward equality, acknowledging the equal service and equal sacrifice of our gay and lesbian service members and their families,” Robinson said. “We thank him for getting us a few steps closer to full equality – steps that will substantively improve the quality of life of gay and lesbian military families.”

Robinson also acknowledged the death of activist and out soldier Charlie Morgan, who passed away this weekend after a long battle with breast cancer.

“As encouraging as this step is for our military families, the passing yesterday of U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan and the needs of her family – needs in danger of going largely unmet because of the Defense of Marriage Act – reminds us of how far we still are from true equality,” Robinson said.

According to Panetta, the Pentagon will attempt to extend the new benefits to service members by August 31 and no later than October 1, but OutServe will work for a quicker resolution.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is expected to tackle DOMA next month and Robinson hopes the Pentagon’s actions will have a positive impact.

“[T]he harm DOMA inflicts on gay and lesbian service members and their families, and on the strength of our military, could not be clearer,” she said. “I hope our Supreme Court Justices are watching as these events unfold, and that they see that striking down DOMA is the only way this unjust and untenable situation can be rectified.”