Military extends benefits to married same-sex couples

DOD says same-sex military spouses are eligible for same health and housing benefits as straight spouses

Tracey Hepner, the wife of U.S. Army General Tammy Smith, holds a U.S. flag in front of the U.S. Supreme Court after the court's ruling on DOMA and Prop 8 in June 2013. The Pentagon on Wednesday announced its plan to extend benefits to same-sex spouses of uniformed military personnel and civilian employees.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Same-sex spouses of U.S. military members will be eligible for the same health care, housing and other benefits enjoyed by opposite-sex spouses starting Sept. 3, the Defense Department said Wednesday.

"It is now the department's policy to treat all married military personnel equally," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in memo Wednesday to senior Pentagon officials.

The decision follows the Supreme Court's ruling in June that struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, which had been used to deny married gay couples such benefits, thus clearing the way for legally married gay couples to be recognized under federal law.

The benefits will be made available to same-sex spouses as long as the service member provides a valid marriage certificate.

Military personnel in a same-sex relationship who are stationed in a state that does not permit same-sex marriage will be allowed to take leave for travel to a jurisdiction where they can marry legally.

The Pentagon said benefits such as TRICARE medical coverage, basic housing allowances and family separation allowances will be extended retroactive to June 26.

The benefits will be granted to service members married after June 26 from the date of their marriage, it said.

But earlier plans to provide benefits to unmarried gay partners have been dropped, officials said Wednesday.

The Associated Press reported last week that Hagel was considering the new benefits proposal.

Momentum in the U.S. has been moving toward acceptance of same-sex marriage, with a half-dozen states legalizing it over the past year and President Barack Obama speaking in support of it.

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia now recognize same-sex marriage.

A department ban on gays serving openly in the military was dropped in September 2011.

Defense officials estimate there are 18,000 same-sex couples in the active-duty military, National Guard and Reserves and among military retirees. It's unclear how many of those are married.

The American Military Partner Association (AMPA), a national support group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender military families, welcomed Wednesday's announcement, but said it would press for access to benefits in all 50 states.

"The extension of equal benefits for all legally married spouses, regardless of sexual orientation, is a huge step forward for our families who for far too long have been excluded and cut off from support," Stephen Peters, president of AMPA, said in an emailed statement. 

Al Jazeera and wire services

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