Pentagon extends military spouse benefits to same-sex married couples

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel outlined a new policy to 'treat all married military personnel equally,' including providing 10 days' paid leave for same-sex couples to travel to a state where gay marriage is legal.

Charles Dharapak/AP/File
Joan Darrah (l.), who served nearly 30 years in the US Navy, and her spouse, Lynne Kennedy, pose for a photo at their home in Alexandria, Va., on June 27, a day after the US Supreme Court's ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act. With that ruling, same-sex spouses of gay veterans and service members will be able to share in their benefits.

The Pentagon announced Wednesday that it will now extend benefits, including health insurance and base housing, to same-sex spouses of US troops.

The decision comes on the heels of a US Supreme Court ruling in June overturning the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which said that under federal law a marriage meant between a man and a woman.

“It is now the Department’s policy to treat all married military personnel equally,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a memo.

All military benefits will be made available to same-sex spouses no later than Sept. 3, as long as service members provide a valid marriage certificate. 

These benefits will also include the ability for same-sex spouses to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, to obtain military ID cards, as well as to be eligible for survivor benefits if their spouses are killed in battle.

The Pentagon continues to wrestle, however, with what to do about visas for same-sex partners of US troops who are serving in countries that do not recognize gay marriage, including Saudi Arabia.

“We have been looking, and places like Japan have popped up – they don’t allow it either,” says a US official, who spoke about the topic on condition of anonymity. 

“Because of other countries' laws, it’s tricky – that’s the bottom line,” says the official. “It’s going to require more than just a wink and a smile.”

For this, the Pentagon will work with the State Department to review “all applicable Status of Forces Agreements” made with other countries to determine how to proceed for overseas tours of those US troops married to same-sex partners, according to an internal Pentagon memo. 

As was the case before the Supreme Court ruling, “a chaplain is not required to participate in or officiate a private ceremony if doing so would be in variance with the tenets of his or her religion or personal beliefs,” the memo notes. 

Housing, health care, and other benefits will be retroactive from the June 26 date of the Supreme Court decision. “Any claims to entitlements before that date will not be granted.”

Defense officials acknowledged, too, the differing state policies that affect US troops who wish to be married, but who are not stationed in a region of the US that recognizes gay unions.

As a result, the Pentagon will provide as many as 10 days of “uncharged leave” for gay troops to travel to a different state to be married. 

“This will provide accelerated access to the full range of benefits offered to married military couples throughout the Department,” according to the Pentagon memo, “and help level the playing field between opposite-sex and same-sex couples seeking to be married.” 

The Defense Department announced in February that a limited number of benefits be made available to same-sex partners, but base housing and health insurance were not among the benefits included, because DOMA prohibited it.

The Pentagon’s announcement will change that. 

“The Supreme Court’s ruling has made it possible for same-sex couples to marry and be afforded benefits available to any military spouse and family,” Mr. Hagel noted, adding that the decision came with the “unanimous advice” of the service chiefs.

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