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Defense secretary announces extension of benefits to same-sex partners

Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Feb. 11 announced the extension of certain benefits to same-sex partners of gay and lesbian servicemembers.

The benefits include providing partners with spousal military ID cards, access to joint duty assignments and also access to support programs for military families.

The announcement comes 17 months after the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the policy that barred gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.

Panetta, in an announcement, said at the time of repeal, he committed to reviewing how the Defense Department treated the partners and families of gays in the military.

He continued, “It is a matter of fundamental equity that we provide similar benefits to all of those men and women in uniform who serve their country. The department already provides a group of benefits that are member-designated. Today, I am pleased to announce that after a thorough and deliberate review, the department will extend additional benefits to same-sex partners of service members.

“Taking care of our servicemembers and honoring the sacrifices of all military families are two core values of this nation. Extending these benefits is an appropriate next step under current law to ensure that all service members receive equal support for what they do to protect this nation.”

Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin responded to the news, "Today, the Pentagon took a historic step forward toward righting the wrong of inequality in our armed forces, but there is still more work to be done. Gay and lesbian servicemembers and their families make sacrifices every day, and this country owes them every measure of support we can provide.Since the repeal of ‘don't ask, don't tell,’ the Obama administration has shown true leadership on this issue. But even today, the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act makes inequality for gay and lesbian military families a legal requirement."

Panetta observed in his announcement that an obstacle to full equal benefits for same-sex partners is the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars the federal recognition of gay marriage. The secretary said, “There are certain benefits that can only be provided to spouses as defined by that law, which is now being reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court. While it will not change during my tenure as secretary of defense, I foresee a time when the law will allow the department to grant full benefits to service members and their dependents, irrespective of sexual orientation. Until then, the department will continue to comply with current law while doing all we can to take care of all soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and their families.”

At Outserve-SLDN, an organization that advocates for LGBT servicemembers, executive director Allyson Robinson acknowledged the limits imposed by DOMA but stressed that, even under DOMA, the Defense Department could extend more benefits, including on-base housing, burial rights at national cemeteries and some overseas travel for spouses, which remain under consideration.

Robinson, however, said the benefits package offered is substantive.

She said, "Secretary Panetta’s decision today answers the call President Obama issued in his inaugural address to complete our nation's journey toward equality, acknowledging the equal service and equal sacrifice of our gay and lesbian service members and their families. We thank him for getting us a few steps closer to full equality - steps that will substantively improve the quality of life of gay and lesbian military families."

The benefits changes that can be made, will happen revisions as expeditiously as possible,” Panetta said.

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