Military will extend health and other benefits to same-sex couples

 

McClatchy Washington Bureau

For Bryan Ruiz and his partner, naval Engineering Duty Officer Jamie Mason, military rules regarding their same-sex relationship made each day more difficult.

Without access to military health care for Ruiz, his medical bills from several motorcycle accidents piled up. Since he isn’t in the military, even the mundane became tough: Mason had to escort Ruiz to and from the base so he could get to his volleyball practice.

But Wednesday changed all that, as the Defense Department announced that it will extend marriage benefits to same-sex spouses starting next month. They’ll be eligible for a variety of assistance, including health care, housing stipends, base access and tuition aid.

All those benefits had been denied by the Defense of Marriage Act, a law that set the federal definition of marriage as only between a man and a woman and said states couldn’t be forced to recognize gay marriages. In June, the Supreme Court ruled that definition to be unconstitutional, but it stopped short of federally legalizing gay marriage.

“This will provide accelerated access to the full range of benefits offered to married military couples throughout the department,” said Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Defense Department spokesman, “and help level the playing field between opposite-sex and same-sex couples seeking to be married.”

It was welcome news for Mason and Ruiz of Portsmouth, Va., who decided to tie the knot in December to take advantage of the new rules.

“I was really glad that this was finally coming to closure,” Ruiz said. “For us, it’s been a great stress, so we can finally just get that weight lifted off our shoulders.”

The changes also allow troops who aren’t stationed in states that allow same-sex marriage to take a week of nonchargeable leave – 10 days if they’re stationed outside the continental United States – to travel to get married, as the extension applies only to married couples.

“It’s a great step forward in making sure our families are finally receiving the important benefits they need,” said Stephen Peters, the president of the American Military Partner Association. The group supports lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender service members.

While Ruiz said he was excited about the change, he admitted that it was still “a little disheartening.” He’d hoped that the military would extend the benefits to same-sex domestic partnerships, which he and Mason have been in for two years. They weren’t specifically planning on getting married until it became clear that step was necessary to be eligible for the benefits.

The Pentagon had announced plans last February to extend limited benefits to domestic partners. But the new action, after the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, has taken precedence.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., responding to early speculation last week that the new leave provision was in the works, called it “preferential treatment to same-sex marriage over heterosexual marriage,” as heterosexual military couples won’t be eligible for the extra leave to get married.

“This administration is eroding our military’s historical apolitical stance by using it as their activism arm for their liberal social agenda,” he said in a statement last week.

The Department of Veterans Affairs hasn’t announced plans to follow the military’s path. While many federal agencies extend benefits to same-sex spouses, the statute that governs the VA still defines “spouse” as “a person of the opposite sex who is a wife or husband.”

That definition wasn’t changed by the Supreme Court, and ultimately it could result in same-sex spouses losing their benefits when their partners retire.

Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., co-authored a bill in February that would extend military benefits to active and retired same-sex spouses. Shaheen said she’d still support the bill because it would require the VA to extend the privileges.

Ruiz said he was worried about whether the couple would continue to qualify for benefits once Mason left the Navy and was eligible for VA assistance.

“If you can’t get that same medical guarantee forever,” he said, “I don’t want to say it becomes useless, but it becomes less valued.”

Email: bkamisar@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @bkamisar

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