Defense Department Stalls Out On Addressing Gay Soldiers' Benefits

The Pentagon's responses to questions about same-sex couples' benefits haven't changed since July. The issue was highlighted by Pentagon leaders themselves in November 2010.

One year after the military ended its “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on out gay, lesbian, and bisexual servicemembers, the Pentagon has not yet determined whether and how it will adapt regulations and programs to include military same-sex couples and their families.

Pentagon officials have said for the past year that the issue is being reviewed, but the lack of resolution comes despite the fact that Defense Department leadership had been alerted to the coming issue before the repeal law even passed Congress in December 2010. When the Pentagon working group that reviewed the implications of repeal reported its findings nearly two years ago, in November 2010, it spent five pages in the report discussing a “large and complex” issue, that of “benefits for same-sex partners and the families of gay and lesbian Service members, in the event of repeal.”

Yet — despite implementation of repeal that has gone largely without incident and had “no overall impact on military readiness,” as reported in a study that was co-authored by professors from each of the U.S. service academies — the underlying issue of the recognition of gay, lesbian and bisexual servicemembers families has gone unaddressed.

The military cites the complexity of including these new groups.

Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez told BuzzFeed that “laws and policies surrounding benefits are complex and interconnected, and it takes time to go through them, along with requirements that come with them.” She gave no end date to the review and echoed similar responses given by her, by other Pentagon spokespeople and officials, and by the 2010 working group report itself.

"The Department is conducting a deliberative and comprehensive review of the possibility of extending eligibility for benefits, when legally permitted, to same-sex domestic partners. The benefits are being examined from a policy, fiscal, legal and feasibility perspective, in three categories: (1) Currently available member-designated benefits; (2) Benefits not available based on current law; and, (3) Benefits that could potentially be extended to other individuals, including same-sex partners, when legally permissible,” Lainez told BuzzFeed — the same response she had given to a similar question in July. The three categories she details go even further back, having been described at length in the Pentagon working group’s 2010 report.

“The working group is reviewing the governing laws and [Department of Defense] policies for each benefit currently offered in order to fully understand the scope and interconnectivity of each benefit,” Lainez added. Pressed on the issue, she noted that “prior to repeal, the department was focused on training the force and preparing policy and regulation revisions. Following repeal, we turned our attention to benefits.”

The hold-up on any changes to result from the ongoing benefits review has been a continued source of frustration for advocates, who saw the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as a time where significant movement could be made on the issues as the military adapted to having out gay servicemembers.

At issue are a series of benefits that, even with the Defense of Marriage Act banning federal recognition of same-sex couples' marriages, could be extended to same-sex couples that have one or both partners in the military. Servicemembers Legal Defense Network provided the Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on August 11, 2011, with a list of 11 areas of changes that it maintains could be made that would not violate DOMA or other federal laws defining marriage.

“It's long past time for the Pentagon to expand all recognition, support, and benefits within its current authority to gay and lesbian service members and their families. We know what's possible under current law," said Zeke Stokes, the spokesman for SLDN, the legal group that played a major role in ending Don't Ask, Don't Tell. "It's time to act."

The Pentagon working group review’s description of these benefits, which are the third category described by Lainez, was blunt: “For these, the Department of Defense and the Services have the regulatory flexibility to define the eligible beneficiaries in way that includes same-sex partners.” The benefits run from the obvious — like allowing same-sex spouses to obtain military I.D. cards so they are able to get on military bases to pick up their children without their servicemember spouse — to more military-specific benefits — like allowing joint duty assignments for same-sex couples where both partners are in the military.

In March of this year, when repeal had been in place for about six months, SLDN’s head, Aubrey Sarvis, already was unhappy with the delay, telling this reporter, “It's six months since repeal. They teed up the benefits disparity issue when the Pentagon working group was at its peak — so that's been a year and a half ago. They've had time to think this through. So, why haven't they acted? … It's overdue.”

Three months later, the Pentagon held the first-ever Pentagon LGBT Pride Month event on June 26, the Defense Department’s general counsel, Jeh Johnson, acknowledged the inequity in his keynote remarks.

“The repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' exposes certain inequalities between similarly situated couples in the military community. This troubles many of our leaders," Johnson — the co-chair of the Pentagon working group that reviewed the repeal implications — said.

Specifically, he said that “the personnel and readiness community is now in the midst of reviewing which military family benefits can be extended to the partners and other family members of gay and lesbian servicemembers,” noting the process was time-consuming but telling this reporter after the remarks, “It's coming along. We'll get it done.” Johnson at the time directed questions about the review to Erin Conaton, the Defense Department’s undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

Following a series of email inquiries to the Pentagon attempting to follow up on when the review would be done, the Pentagon spokeswoman, Lainez, stated on July 8, “There is not a deadline associated with the review.”