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Panetta extends same-sex benefits throughout the military

The dramatic changes to and modernization of the U.S. military in recent years has been nothing short of remarkable, and today marks yet another milestone.

More than a year after lifting the ban on gay men and women serving openly in the military, the Pentagon has extended certain benefits to these service members and their families.

Gay rights groups have been pressing the Pentagon to extend equal benefits to gay service members and their families since the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. The benefits include commissary privileges, access to family support initiatives and joint duty assignments. The move was one of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's last moves as a member of President Barack Obama's Cabinet, and it will likely be one of his most lasting legacies.

The Pentagon published a memo (pdf) detailing the revised policy and the scope of the changes, and though they're not universal -- the benefits are still not quite in line with those extended to straight couples -- they're pretty close.

And why aren't the benefits identical? According to Panetta, the Pentagon was a little limited by legal restrictions. An extension of all benefits, he said, presents "complex legal and policy challenges to due their nexus to statutorily-prohibited benefits and due to ongoing reviews about how best to provide scarce resources."

Or to put another way, the agency's lawyers wouldn't let Panetta go quite as far as he'd like, but the Defense Department can take another look at this after the Supreme Court review of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Regardless, it's yet another major step forward, and by any measure, another civil rights breakthrough for the men and women in uniform and the country they serve.