“The Defense of Marriage Act and current benefit laws do not allow the Department of Defense to extend many key benefits—including dependent medical coverage, dependent-rate BAH, and dependent-based travel and transportation allowances—to a Service member in a relationship with a same-sex partner.”
—Department of Defense, Support Plan for Implementation: Report of the Comprehensive Review of the Issues Associated with a Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”
The military is a giant, overwhelming huge bureaucracy. It lives and dies by paperwork. Nothing is official unless it is documented in sixteen places with sixteen different signatures. Because of that, the service member is the only person in the family that the bureaucracy acknowledges. I do not exist as an individual to the military; I exist as Dependent 1 of my husband. My older son is Dependent 2 and my younger son is Dependent 3. All the benefits we receive as dependents of my husband are based on the paperwork that ties us to him. My sons have birth certificates. I have a marriage certificate.
Thanks to the Defense of Marriage Act, same-sex partners do not have a marriage certificate… or at least they don’t have a marriage certificate that the military is allowed to acknowledge. That is a very bad thing if you love someone who is a member of the military.
I’m going to break down that quote from the top of this post because it is riddled with military jargon. It’s not just the Defense of Marriage Act that prohibits same-sex partners from receiving benefits; it is also current military law. And Congress sets military law. Congress has decided that many of the ‘key benefits’ can only be extended to married partners. If you are a girlfriend/fiancée/life partner the military doesn’t care—you don’t count.
Now what are those ‘key benefits’? First and most important is the ability to be entered into the DEERS database. Once you are in DEERS you are eligible for an ID card that allows you access to military instillations (bases). If you cannot get an ID card you cannot come onto base without being in the same car as a service member or meeting a service member at the Visitor’s Center and getting a visitor’s pass. So, basically, without an ID card you can’t just show up at your loved one’s office… which isn’t the end of the world but can sure be annoying if you want to meet for lunch or do any type of carpooling.
However, the bigger issue with not having an ID card is that the ID card is also your insurance card. No ID card, no health insurance or “dependent health coverage” as the quote above states.
The other big problem with no ID card and no access to the base is that you cannot live on base. But on top of not letting you live on base, same-sex couples will also not be allowed “dependant-rate BAH”. BAH stands for Basic Allowance for Housing. Service members who live on base have their BAH sent directly to the base housing company. Service members who live off-base get their BAH each month as a part of their paycheck. Any service member who lives off-base gets BAH… but a member with dependents can get up to several hundred dollars more a month than a member without any dependents.
The obvious response to this is that it sucks and is unfair but that a service member’s same-sex partner should just work. Two incomes are better than one with a few bonuses and the partner should make sure their job provides health coverage.
But what about that third “key benefit”? What about “dependent-based travel and transportation allowances”?
This will probably come as a shock to no one, but being in the military means moving a lot. The military is trying to save money by moving people around less but that just means a move every three years instead of every two. If a service member retires, that means they served for twenty years. Twenty divided by three is six. When service members move a family, they get reimbursed for moving expenses including a small daily food allowance for each dependent. A family also gets a larger amount of household goods moved than a single member. Imagine moving six times and only being reimbursed for half of it.
Now imagine moving six times and being told that you get no benefits and each time you move you have to find a job with health insurance. And, the resume you have to job hunt with is now full of jobs you’ve only held for two or three years before you moved… again.
Now imagine you are told your service member is being sent overseas for their next assignment. When this happened to me, we had to fill out some additional paperwork but then my sons and I got listed on my husband’s orders. Once we were on his orders we got special passports. Once our passports had arrived, we applied for and were quickly granted special visas to live in our new host country for the duration of my husband’s overseas tour. We were able to move because we are dependents. Same-sex partners of service members will not have any of these benefits. A same-sex partner will only be able to move overseas with their service member if they apply through normal channels. How easy do you think it will be for a single person with no job to go to and no family to live with (technically) to get a foreign visa?
There is actually some good news for same-sex partners now that DADT is on it’s way into the dustbin of history, service members will now be able to provide some benefits to their same-sex partner. Service members will be able to list their same-sex partner as the beneficiary of their life insurance and death gratuity. They will also be able to choose their same-sex partner as the first person to contact should they die, be injured or go missing along with appointing their same-sex partner as their caregiver in case of injury.
You probably noticed that none of those benefits come into play until the worst has happened. To add to that, same-sex partners will not officially be considered widow/ers and will be denied all access to the benefits that make the transition easier for gold star families such as priority in federal hiring.
Basically what it boils down to is this: gay and lesbian service members are now allowed to love and live openly but is still incredibly hard for them to maintain a long term relationship because of the structural problems involved. The single biggest problem is the Defense of Marriage Act that excludes same-sex partners from most of the benefits given to married military couples.
We have to keep fighting for full and equal marriage. Gay and lesbian service members won’t really be equal to their peers until we do. Or, as the Department of Defense’s Support Plan for Implementation states, “The national debate on same-sex marriage and partner benefits is ongoing, and the judicial and legislative landscape is in a state of flux. It is possible that, in the future, additional policy options may be available.”