We begin with the limits of equality for gay service members. The end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell allows them to serve openly, but when it comes to hundreds of benefits most military families get, the spouses of gay and lesbian soldiers, Marines and sailors are second class citizens. Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was reportedly going to extend more benefits to them this week -- but that's now been pushed back. The Pentagon declined to comment or be interviewed, but a spokeswoman did tell the Washington Post they're reviewing the policy -- and what can be done in light of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevents the federal government from extending benefits to same sex couples. I talked with The American Military Partner Association's Lori Hensic, whose partner Shaina is a Marine Corps helicopter pilot stationed at Camp Pendleton in San Diego. Host Scott Shafer asked which benefits her group feels are most important.
LORI HENSIC: Among out membership, we did an informal poll asking them, what are your, if you had to kind of say, your "Top Five Needs," and the first one is military identification cards as family members. Same sex spouses or domestic partners are currently denied military identification cards identification cards which then grant them access to, not only the base, but all of the facilities that are located on base. So, it would grant them access to use of commissary or base exchange facilities which are effectively like a grocery store which is discounted on base. The second need was if someone was to be moved to a duty station oversea...unlike our heterosexual counterparts, our spouses are being denied sponsorship which will allow them to have a financial allocation or a monetary allocation to help support the moving of that partner to join their partner on base. And the third was healthcare and insurance which is somewhat straightforward. The fourth thing that we found was pay or housing allowances or travel. And, this is basically the biggest financial component. The difference between tax-free housing allowances or tax-free bumps in pay based on your dependents or how many dependents you might have. The last is particularly difficult as there are many of our couples who are both members within the couple are active duty military. So, while our heterosexual counterparts are given preference to be stationed at the same duty station or at least nearby in the same geographical area because same-sex marriage is not recognized, our families are given no consideration in this regard. This often splits up the family. This is further complicated by our service members who have children.
SCOTT SHAFER: As you said some of these benefits are prohibited by the defense of marriage act or DOMA. I wonder if you think that some of it is also like a lingering or even a very strong resistance within the military culture that still judges same-sex military families to be as not quite as deserving as other military families.
HENSIC: You know, I do hesitate to kind of pass judgment on what the culture may or may not be. There are a lot of honorable traditions within all of the branches of the military. Certainly, any change, particularly in an area where tradition is held of high regard. Certainly, it is going to be extremely difficult to adjust to the "new" modern military family and what that means and how it's defined. I do want to point out that aside from us mentioning DOMA or the Defense of Marriage Act....there are benefits that are regulated under the Department of Defense regulations that are currently unavailable to our same-sex military families. While, DOMA allocated benefits are currently prohibited, the Department of Defense regulations could be actually changed without needing the repeal of DOMA and these benefits could be extended to our same-sex military families...and those are the ones that Secretary Panetta has the ability to change.
SHAFER: There are obviously implications for this set of circumstances; financial implications, health, emotional, but I'm wondering what you think it does in terms of things like morale within the military.
HENSIC: You would imagine it would be difficult for a service member to 100% focus on their work and be dedicated to unit cohesiveness if they are worried about their family back at home having the same support system as their heterosexual counterparts.
SHAFER: If the Department of Defense extends these additional benefits, as is expected, what difference would it make to you and your partner in the short-term? What would be the most immediate change you would feel?
HENSIC: I can speak for myself personally. It would definitely feel like we are regarded as equals. Not only among Shana's squadron, among the military branches she serves in, among the military service in general...but it sends a very strong message to the public that there are inequalities that can be righted and same-sex couples are no different in terms of contribution to society and I think that is a very important message to send out to our service members and our military families.