DOMA: Military spouses to see benefits 'as soon as possible,' Hagel vows

The Supreme Court ruling against DOMA 'helps ensure that all men and women who serve this country can be treated fairly and equally,' Defense Secretary Hagel says.

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    Tracey Hepner, wife of US Army Gen. Tammy Smith, the first openly gay flag officer in the US military, holds a US flag in front of the US Supreme Court after the court struck down a key portion of the Defense of Marriage Act.

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With the Supreme Court decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the Pentagon will move “as soon as possible” to make all the same benefits available to all military spouses, regardless of sexual orientation, the nation’s top defense official announced Wednesday.

This will include burial for spouses of US troops at Arlington National Cemetery, as well as survivor benefits and identification cards that will allow them access to base gyms and grocery stores.

Same sex partners will also now be eligible for health care and be factored into housing allowances, two of the biggest sore points for many gay service members who came out when Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed in 2010.

Recommended: How much do you know about gay rights in America? Take the quiz!

The Defense of Marriage Act prohibited the Pentagon from extending these benefits to spouses, because it defined marriage as between a man and a woman. The Supreme Court Wednesday upheld a lower court ruling that the law, enacted by Congress in 1996, is unconstitutional.

“The Department of Defense welcomes the Supreme Court’s decision today on the Defense of Marriage Act,” said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a statement issued quickly on the heels of the ruling’s announcement.

To that end, the Pentagon “will immediately” begin the process of implementing the Supreme Court’s decision in consultation with the Department of Justice, Secretary Hagel said.

“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.”

This will include making “the same benefits available to all military spouses – regardless of sexual orientation – as soon as possible,” Hagel added. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Gay rights advocacy groups, who have long backed extending greater benefits to same-sex spouses, hailed the move.

“This victory is especially sweet for our nation’s lesbian, gay, and bisexual service members, who can now not only serve openly, but can serve knowing that their loving, committed, and legal marriages will be recognized by the military they serve and the nation they protect,” said Army veteran Allyson Robinson, executive director of OutServe-SLDN, an advocacy group.

The ruling “energizes our work moving forward,” said Ms. Robinson, who noted that the case of McLaughlin versus Panetta, which was filed in October 2011 on behalf of eight married gay military couples who were seeking equal benefits, will move forward because the case challenges the constitutionality of other statues in addition to DOMA.

“We owe a debt of gratitude to the McLaughlin plaintiffs today,” she added, in a statement.

One of the plaintiffs, Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan, had returned from a year-long deployment in Kuwait in 2010 to find that the breast cancer that she thought was in remission had returned.

This diagnosis launched a new battle for Ms. Morgan: to make sure that her wife and their daughter had the same survivor benefits when she died that would go to any other married couple with children.

“I earned these benefits serving my country,” said Morgan, who spoke with the Monitor in December, before she died this past February. 

“It’s the same fears anyone has for their family – I just want them to be taken care of,” she added. “It’s all about loving and taking care of your family. That’s family values. That’s what I fight for. This is what I worked for. This is what I stand for.”

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