Departing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta extended Monday a list of benefits — all previously denied by the Pentagon — to the same-sex spouses of service members as well as to the unmarried partners of gay troops.
The perks, automatically available to heterosexual military spouses, will include hospital child care services, hospital visits, and the issuing of military ID cards, which will give same-sex spouses and partners access to on-base commissaries, movie theaters and gyms. The policy changes will go into effect once training on the new rules is completed, Panetta said.
While advocates for gay and lesbian service members and their families hailed Panetta’s policy switch as “substantive” and “encouraging,” the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) still blocks the DOD from enacting more than 85 other benefits now provided to heterosexual military spouses and their children — most notably medical and dental care, housing allowances, and death benefits.
Also, as NBC News reported Feb. 4, that same federal law mandates that when a gay service member is killed in combat, military officials must first notify that troop’s blood family, not their spouse, as is normally the course of action.
Panetta said DOMA is “now being reviewed by the United States Supreme Court" — and he offered his first clear signal that the Pentagon wants that law overturned.
“There are certain benefits that can only be provided to spouses as defined by that law,” Panetta said. “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."
Same-sex advocates have been pushing the DOD to extend full benefits to the spouses and partners of all U.S. service members since the repeal 17 months of ago of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy which prohibited gay troops from revealing their sexual orientation.
“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,” Panetta said. “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 ...
“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."
Advocates for gay and lesbian service members and their families praised Panetta’s policy shift although they said that the move is not groundbreaking due to the DOMA legal blockade.
“Secretary Panetta’s decision today answers the call President (Barack) 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,” said Allyson Robinson, an Army veteran and executive director of OutServe-SLDN, an association of actively serving lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender U.S. military personnel with more than 50 chapters and 6,000 members.
“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 said.
The American Military Partner Association (AMPA), a support network for LGBT military families, released the following statement today in response to Panetta's announcement:
“We’ve waited far too long for this, and it’s fantastic news that our dedicated military families will now have access to some of the benefits and support services they need and deserve,” said Stephen Peters, the group's president. “However, (DOMA) continues to undermine our military families who sacrifice so much for our nation. This summer, we hope that the Supreme Court will make it clear that our families are just as important and deserve the same protections, benefits, and support that federal recognition brings.”
To offer the new benefits to partners, DOD will ask gay and lesbian service members to sign a “Declaration of Domestic Partnership” in which they will attest that they are in a committed relationship, and intend to remain so indefinitely, and that neither is legally married, according to OutServe-SLDN.
The changes will take “several months to complete, Pentagon officials said. The extra time is needed so that military leaders can offer a chance for the public to comment on the new rules and also to allow an opportunity for each of the branches to update its IT system, develop new processes for issuing ID cards, and train their personnel on the refreshed benefits package.
Panetta did stop short on offering a full slate of benefits that gay advocates have been requesting for two years: on-base housing and burial at Arlington National Cemetery and other items that don’t fall under DOMA, according to OutServe-SLDN. (The organization’s lawyers drafted an explanation outlining the policy shift for gay service members and their families.)
DOD officials have explained to OutServe-SLDN that “policy for burial at Arlington National Cemetery is under review. At issue is how to verify eligible same-sex relationships for the surviving spouse in order to ensure equitable policy implementation."
NBC News' Jim Miklaszewski contributed to this report.