Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel has committed to extending partners benefits “permissible under current law” to gay service members as part of attempts to allay concerns among Democratic senators about his potential performance as Pentagon chief.
In a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Hagel responds to queries the California Democrat apparently expressed on issues like Iran, Israel and protection of female service members against sexual assault — in addition to asserting support for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and a commitment to extending partner benefits for gay troops.
“I fully support the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010 and value the service of all those who fight for our country,” Hagel writes. “I know firsthand the profound sacrifice our service members and their families make, and if confirmed as Secretary of Defense, I will do everything possible to the extent permissible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our service members.”
LGBT concerns persist over Hagel, whom President Obama nominated last week for defense secretary, regarding 1998 anti-gay remarks he made against then-ambassadorial nominee James Hormel — comments for which he has apologized — and a dismal anti-gay voting in record in Congress. Some LGBT advocates have been pushing Hagel to state a greater commitment to LGBT service members during his confirmation process.
Among the commitments LGBT advocates have been calling for is a secretarial directive to grant certain benefits to gay troops, such as joint duty assignments, issuance of military IDs, use of the commissary and family housing. Pentagon officials said they were looking at these benefits more than a year ago since the time “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lifted in September 2011, but no action has been taken.
Allyson Robinson, executive director of the LGBT military group OutServe-SLDN, said in a statement she’s pleased with the commitment to partner benefits expressed by Hagel in the letter.
“Sen. Hagel’s commitment is a turning point for our gay and lesbian military families,” Robinson said. “His promise to grant these service members the family benefits they have earned demonstrates his deepening grasp of the injustice currently being done to them.”
But Robinson, who was unavailable for an interview with the Blade on Tuesday, also advised Hagel to stand firm against what she said was the reported intransigence among the military service chiefs — the chief of naval operations, the Marine Corps commandant, the Army chief of staff and the Air Force chief of staff — against implementing these benefits, as well as reluctance to taking another step for gay troops.
“The best way for Sen. Hagel to deal with that kind of foot-dragging in the Department of Defense is to take another step: the amendment of the military’s nondiscrimination and equal opportunity policies to cover our community,” Robinson said. “These documents help establish the command climate for the entire force, and for Senator Hagel to expand them in this way would send a very clear message that the days of treating LGBT service members as second class citizens will be coming to an end under his leadership.”
In a statement, Boxer on Tuesday said she supports Hagel based on the conversations she’d had with the defense secretary nominee.
“After speaking extensively with Senator Hagel by phone last week and after receiving a detailed written response to my questions late today, I will support Senator Hagel’s nomination as Secretary of Defense,” Boxer said.
Boxer isn’t the only senator who had questions for Hagel about his commitment to gay troops. Lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) said on MSNBC upon the news that Obama would nominate Hagel that she had “tough questions” for the former senator on his evolution and commitment to LGBT issues. Her office didn’t immediately respond to a request to comment on whether any conversations had yet taken place.