WASHINGTON—For Stewart Bornhoft, who completed two tours of duty in Vietnam, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision granting federal benefits to married, same-sex couples means that he and his spouse, Stephen McNabb, can one day be buried together at Arlington National Cemetery.
For Joan Darrah, who served nearly 30 years in the Navy and lived through the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon, the decision means her spouse, Lynne Kennedy, can join her more generous, less expensive health plan.
Just two years ago, gays and lesbians were prevented from serving openly in the military. Now, with the Supreme Court ruling this week, same-sex spouses of gay veterans and service members will be able to share in their benefits.
The Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law, reports that 650,000 same-sex couples live in the United States and about 13 percent of those relationships include a veteran. The institute said it’s unknown how many of those estimated 85,000 relationships involve marriages. A dozen states and the Washington capital district allow for gay marriage.
Same-sex spouses of military veterans now will be able to get help with college tuition and can be buried in a national cemetery. They also can get a monthly indemnity payment that compensates them for the death of the veteran. Meanwhile, veterans receive enhanced disability compensation for their injuries if they’re married, generally amounting to several thousands of dollars over the course of a lifetime.
But under the Defense of Marriage Act and the law covering Veterans Administration benefits, such extra assistance was unavailable to veterans who were part of a same-sex marriage. That all changed with the Supreme Court ruling Wednesday.
President Barack Obama said he’s directed Attorney General Eric Holder to work with all members of the Cabinet to ensure that changes to benefits are implemented swiftly and smoothly.
David McKean, legal director at Outserve-SLDN, which provides legal counsel to gay and lesbian service members and veterans, said Congress may need to update the statute governing VA benefits because it stipulates that marriages are valid only if they are viewed as such by the state where the veteran lives. That means the current VA statute doesn’t recognize as valid a marriage that takes place between two residents of, say, Texas or Florida, even if the veteran has a marriage certificate from Massachusetts or Vermont.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen has introduced legislation that would liberalize the definition of spouse to include anyone whose marriage is considered valid in the state where it occurred.
After the court’s decision, Shaheen wrote letters to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki saying she hoped policies that “discriminate against loving, same-sex couples will no longer be enforced.”
“The sooner people can access benefits that should be available to them, the better for them and their families,” she said.
Testifying last month at a Senate hearing, the VA said it supported exempting the department from the Defense of Marriage Act, and that it supported the Shaheen bill.
Josh Taylor, a VA spokesman, said the department was reviewing relevant statutes and would try to implement any changes to benefits for veterans “swiftly and smoothly.”
Major veterans groups have been largely silent on the issue of extending benefits to married, same-sex veterans. One exception was Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which applauded the Supreme Court’s decision.
Earlier this year, Shinseki approved the first burial of a same-sex spouse of a veteran in a national cemetery, but officials emphasized at the time the decision didn’t establish a precedent or policy. Rather, Shinseki used his discretion as secretary to approve a specific veteran’s request based on a showing of a committed relationship.
One of Leon Panetta’s final acts as defense secretary was extending certain benefits not covered through DOMA, such as access to on-base commissaries.
The financial gain from the Supreme Court’s decision could be significant for some veterans. For example, a veteran considered 100 percent disabled gets VA compensation amounting to $2,816 a month. A similarly disabled veteran with a spouse gets $2,973 — a difference of nearly $1,900 annually.
In another example, a spouse of a veteran who died as a result of injuries or illness incurred while on active duty is eligible to receive at least $1,195 a month in indemnity compensation.
Veteran Darrah said it’s been stunning to watch the country move from the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on gays and lesbians serving in the military to having her marriage recognized, all in less than two years. She, too, hopes one day to be buried at Arlington with her spouse.
“Change is never fast enough, but I’m dumbfounded with how quickly the country has moved,” Darrah said. “I wanted it to happen. I never thought it could happen.”