Gays pressing for equal benefits

The dismal failure by the congressional “super committee” to deal with the nation’s debt crisis leaves the Department of Defense facing automatic $55-billion-a-year spending cuts from 2013 through 2021. This is in addition to defense cuts of near-equal size already planned across the same decade.

President Obama promised before Thanksgiving to veto any attempt to block the automatic cuts unless Republicans agree to replace them with a “balanced” debt reduction package, one that includes tax increases on the wealthy and closing of corporate loopholes as well as Democrat concessions to curb popular federal entitlement programs.

With most Republicans having pledged to a powerful lobbyist, Grover Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform group, not to allow tax increases of any kind, military associations fear pay and benefits are in the crosshairs of both parties, particularly the TRICARE health program for military retirees.

It is against this backdrop of threats to current benefits that gays and lesbians in uniform have begun to press for benefit equality. Advocates are lobbying the department for regulation changes, filing challenges in federal court and pressing Congress to repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act which prohibits extension of federal benefits, including military allowances, travel costs and health care, to spouses in same-sex marriages.

Military gays and lesbians have been able to serve openly since Sept. 20 when repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law took effect. A social research center at UCLA, the Miller Institute, estimates that 66,000 homosexuals serve on active duty and the National Guard and Reserve.

Defense officials recently released a list of 14 military benefit programs that allow service members to designate “beneficiaries of their choosing, regardless of sexual orientation.”

These include: Service Members Group Life Insurance; Veterans’ Group Life Insurance; Post Vietnam-era Veterans Assistance Program; the All-volunteer Force Educational Assistance Program (active duty death benefit); military death gratuity; final settlement of accounts; wounded warrior designated caregiver; thrift savings plan; casualty notification; escort for dependents of deceased or missing; designation as “person having interest in status of a missing member; persons eligible to receive effects of deceased persons; and travel allowance to attend Yellow Ribbon Reintegration events.

And, under the military’s Survivor Benefits Plan, members can designate anyone to be a beneficiary under an “insurable interest” category of SBP.

Eileen Lainez, a Defense Department spokeswoman, said officials continue “a careful and deliberate review” of programs with an eye toward revising eligibility for additional benefits “if legally permitted.”

The day before the list was released, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network filed a lawsuit in federal court in Boston on behalf of six married homosexual couples on active duty or two who are retired seeking full military benefits. The lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act and other statutes that prohibit same-sex married couples from getting all benefits and family support that straight couples get.

Benefits illegally denied, the suit contends, include housing, health care, full survivor benefits, identification cards, and access to base stores as well as other morale, welfare and recreation programs.

Defense officials said these issues are, in fact, being studied.