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DOD computer glitch delays benefits for gay spouses

Jeff Zarillo, Paul Katami, Sandy Stier, Kris Perry, David Boies, Chad Griffin, gay marriage, same-sex marriage, marriage equality, Proposition 8, Defense of Marriage Act, DOMA, Prop 8, California, Supreme Court, gay news, Washington Blade

Defense Department (DOD) computers are encountering problems in registering same-sex partners for military benefits in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling striking down a key provision of DOMA. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Kelly Egan, a retired chief master sergeant who served 20 years in the Air Force, says she watched with great interest in June when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA.

With the White House and Pentagon announcing that the government would move quickly to ensure that same-sex spouses of federal civilian and military personnel would be eligible for full spousal benefits that had long been denied under DOMA, Egan says she took steps to add her wife as a beneficiary for her military survivor benefit program.

Much to her disappointment, Egan says, her application for the benefit for her wife was denied – not by the military officials with whom she spoke but by the Defense Enrollment and Eligibility Reporting System, or DEERS, a massive computerized database system operated by the Department of Defense.

“The whole screen went black,” Egan told the Blade in describing what happened when a polite benefits clerk at the Pentagon entered her application into a computer terminal. According to Egan, the computer glitch was triggered by the fact that she and her spouse are of the same gender.

“They told me they hope to get this fixed in September,” Egan said. “They said it’s a software issue. But if I should die now, my wife is out of luck.”

Egan said she was told that the same problem is surfacing for active duty and retired military members who are applying for benefits for same-sex spouses both in the U.S. and in military installations overseas.

“The Department of Defense is working alongside the Department of Justice to implement the Court’s decision as quickly as possible,” said Lt. Commander Nate Christensen, a DOD spokesperson, in an email to the Blade. “At this time no decisions have been made,” he said.

A representative of the DEERS system’s regional office that processes benefits for D.C.-area military personnel and military retirees said the office would arrange for a spokesperson to discuss the issue of processing same-sex benefit requests. A spokesperson did not immediately respond.

Egan said the civilian staff member with whom she spoke at the Pentagon and another civilian staffer she visited at the U.S. Army base at Fort Myers in Arlington, Va., were cordial and expressed considerable interest in helping her. But she said they were unable to override the DEERS system’s computer program that steadfastly denied her application for the survivor benefit for her spouse.

“I went to Fort Myers first because the DEERS system can be accessed at any base,” she said. “The guy there was very nice and invited me to sit down. When I told him what I needed the first thing he said was, ‘Where is your husband.’” Egan recounted.

“I said, well, it’s my wife. And he said, OK, great. You’re the first one to come in for that.”

However, like the clerk at the Pentagon, the Fort Myers staffer could not get past the DEERS system block in processing a same-sex spouse.

David McKean, an attorney and former legal director for OutServe-Service Members Legal Defense Network, a group that has assisted LGBT military members, said DOD officials told him six weeks ago that DOD was working hard to fix the problem.

“It is the single point of entry to be qualified for all military benefits,” McKean said of DEERS. “In order to get an I.D. card, in order to have your spouse to qualify for housing or to get health insurance – all that stuff – requires registration in DEERS,” he said.

“And the DEERS system, when you enter your [same-sex] spouse and show your marriage license, as you’re required to do, you get an error message,” he said. “As far as I can tell, this is the only barrier to extending same-sex spouse benefits in the military.”

McKean said he was hopeful that DOD officials, who are aware of the problem, can fix it soon. He said DOD officials told him that people like Kelly Egan and other retired or active duty military members, will have their benefits back dated to June 26, the day the Supreme Court issued its DOMA decision, once the computer programs are corrected.

07
Aug
2013

Hagel a disappointing choice from Obama

07
Jan
2013

Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense

I am not prepared to write off former Sen. Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense for comments he made years ago about former Ambassador James Hormel or issues related to the LGBT community. I am willing to accept his apology, which Ambassador Hormel has now accepted even if reluctantly, because Hagel will work for President Obama and I don’t believe the president would nominate anyone to this sensitive position who will not be supportive of our community.

I believe that the president understands that were Hagel to not promote or do anything to thwart the continued integration of gays and lesbians into the military there would be huge demonstrations not at the Pentagon but in front of the White House. It would be the president that the LGBT community would and should hold accountable.

I recently had to stymie a chuckle when reading the full-page ads that Log Cabin Republicans placed in a number of newspapers including the New York Times and the Washington Post opposing Hagel’s nomination. An organization that in 2012 endorsed the Romney/Ryan ticket for president is now claiming to be so upset about things Hagel said years ago is blatant hypocrisy. I have to wonder who paid for those ads and whether the donor was really trying to stop Hagel’s nomination for other reasons and only using Log Cabin as a vehicle to do so. It is interesting to see some in the LGBT community aligned with neocons and other Republican conservatives on this issue. I had a real belly laugh when reading right-wing columnist Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post say, “If Republicans had nervy firebrands like the late Senator Ted Kennedy, someone would rise up and declare, ‘Chuck Hagel’s America is a land in which gays would be forced back in the closet.’” These, of course, would be the same Republicans who in 2012 adopted and supported a party platform that basically would have accomplished just that.

Hagel is part of a dying breed of moderate Republicans. In 2002, he accused the Bush administration of a “cavalier approach” to the rest of the world. In a recent National Journal article on Hagel it stated he voted for the Iraq war resolution but insisted, “Actions in Iraq must come in context of an American-led, multilateral approach to disarmament not as a first case for a new American doctrine involving the preemptive use of force.” Hagel has said he is for talking to and trying to negotiate with the Iranians rather than having either the U.S. or Israel use military force to deal with them before all other options are exhausted. He voted for more than $40 billion of aid to Israel during his time in Congress but isn’t willing to give Israel a blank check or approve new settlements and aggression when they aren’t necessary.

He clearly shares many of the foreign policy positions of the administration. He shares the president’s view that we must realign our military and prepare for the kind of warfare we could face in the future, which is anathema to many of the neocons who have led us into war in the past.

One very interesting fact about Chuck Hagel is that he would be the first Secretary of Defense who actually volunteered for military service when he enlisted to fight in Vietnam — something that should stand him in good stead with our all-volunteer military. I know there will be a fight over this nomination and it is a fight the president has chosen to make. I support his right to choose the person he wants to lead the Pentagon and unless something new and disturbing is unearthed during the confirmation hearings agree with organizations like J Street and a large bipartisan group of individuals, including former Sens. Boren (Okla.), Hart (Colo.) and Kassebaum-Baker (Kan.), and others such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, Thomas Carlucci, Brent Scowcroft and Paul Volcker, who agree that Hagel should be confirmed.

09
Jan
2013

Critics assail Pentagon over blocked gay sites

Pentagon, military, gay news, Washington Blade

Activists are pressuring the Department of Defense to lift a block on the websites of LGBT blogs and organizations. (Public domain photo by Master Sgt. Ken Hammond)

WASHINGTON — The Defense Department has blocked access to several popular LGBT websites, angering activists, according to AmericaBlog.

The Internet filter, provided by software maker Blue Coat, blocks not just adult sites, but also blogs like Americablog and the sites of organizations like GLAAD and HRC.

“Blue Coat is banning any and all news related to gay and trans people, and even banning anti-bullying and suicide prevention information,” Americablog’s John Aravosis writes. “That’s an incredibly offensive category for any company to create, but adding in anti-bullying and suicide prevention as two specific things that need to be censored, is beyond offensive, especially when Blue Coat admits that sites are ‘generally suitable for viewing by all age groups.’”

HRC and GLAAD have both mobilized readers to reach out to Blue Shield and the Pentagon over the filter block, and a Change.org petition to lift the block had garnered 3,232 supporters as of Wednesday.

10
Jan
2013

Hagel commits to extending partner benefits to gay troops

Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel has committed to extending partner benefits to gay troops (public domain photo by Lance Cpl. Casey Jones)

Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel has committed to extending partner benefits to gay troops (public domain photo by Lance Cpl. Casey Jones)

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.

15
Jan
2013

White House: Gay troops benefits issue has Obama’s attention

White House, Jay Carney

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said benefits issue for gay troops ‘has the president’s attention’ (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney asserted on Friday that President Obama is considering the issue of outstanding partner benefits that could be extended to gay service members administratively.

Under questioning from the Washington Blade, Carney said Obama is focused on further implementation of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and “the need to ensure that proper benefits are provided,” but referred further questions to the Pentagon.

“The president is absolutely focused on and aware of the need to further implement DADT [repeal], and to ensure that proper benefits are provided,” Carney said. “You know, for more details, I would point you to the Defense Department, but this is an issue the president is aware of and it has his attention.”

Asked by the Blade whether it was reasonable to conclude the Pentagon needs prodding, Carney replied, “Again, this issue has the president’s attention.”

Since the time “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lifted in September 2011, Pentagon officials have said they’ve been examining possible partner benefits that are currently withheld from gay troops. However, the Pentagon hasn’t taken any action since that time.

While major ticket items like health and pension benefits are precluded under the Defense of Marriage Act and other federal law governing rights of U.S. service members, LGBT advocates say other benefits could be extended administratively, such as military IDs and joint duty assignments, as well as access to housing and family programs.

The issue has received more attention in the wake of controversy over a spousal club at an Army base in Ft. Bragg, N.C., refusing to offer membership to Ashley Broadway, the spouse of the lesbian service member. Groups like the Human Rights Campaign and OutServe-SLDN have called on the Pentagon to action, as has Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who has circulated a letter among U.S. House members calling for the extension of these benefits.

Kevin Nix, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign responded to Carney’s answers saying that the Pentagon can extend partner benefits to gay troops at any time.

“I would just reiterate that the secretary can issue regulations tomorrow  — a simple fix really that’s doesn’t run afoul of DOMA,” Nix said. “All of this country’s servicemembers, their spouses and partners should be treated equally.”

Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, whom President Obama tapped to replace Panetta upon his departure, is expected to answer questions on issues pertaining LGBT troops during his confirmation hearing set for Thursday. In a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer last week, Hagel already expressed commitment to extending partner benefits to gay troops, saying, “I will do everything possible to the extent permissible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our service members.”

A transcript of the exchange between the Washington Blade and Carney follows:

Washington Blade: Jay, there’s been a lot in the news recently about how service members with same-sex partners aren’t receiving certain benefits that could be extended administratively at any time at the Pentagon. They include military IDs, joint duty assignments and access to certain family programs. Is the President aware of this issue and will he direct the Pentagon to take action on this if they don’t do it on its own?

Jay Carney: I can tell you broadly, I don’t have specifics for you. The president is absolutely focused on and aware of the need to further implement DADT [repeal], and to ensure that proper benefits are provided. You know, for more details, I would point you to the Defense Department, but this is an issue the president is aware of and it has his attention.

Blade: The Pentagon has saying since “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lifted in September 2011 that they’ve been reviewing this issue, but no action has been taken. Isn’t it reasonable to conclude that they need a little prodding?

Carney: Again, this issue has the president’s attention.

25
Jan
2013

Pentagon to offer partner benefits to gay troops

Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta

Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Pentagon announced on Monday that it will start the process of offering limited benefits available under current law to gay troops with same-sex partners.

In a memo dated Feb. 11 to senior Pentagon officials, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta enumerated the benefits that will be afforded to gay troops — which include military IDs, joint duty assignments and access to the commissary — and set a goal for implementing these benefits by Aug. 31, but no later than Oct. 1.

“Taking care of our service members and honoring the sacrifices of all military families are two core values of this nation,” Panetta said in a statement accompanying the memo. “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.”

Other benefits that will be afforded are access to morale, welfare and recreation programs; sexual assault counseling; legal assistance; child care; and space-available travel on military aircraft. A full list of the benefits can be found on Attachment 2 of the Panetta memo here.

The memo states the Pentagon will “immediately proceed” with implementing these changes and provide a plan within 60 days.

However, the Pentagon won’t at this time offer certain benefits that LGBT advocates have been seeking under current law, such as access to on-base housing, covering costs for transportation to an overseas post and burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

During a news briefing on Monday, a Pentagon senior official said housing wouldn’t be offered because extending that benefit would be “violating the spirit” of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage.

Panetta writes in the memorandum that the Pentagon will continue to review these benefits, indicating they haven’t yet been outright rejected.

“With regard to on-base housing, burial and benefits related to command sponsorship overseas, these benefits present complex legal and policy challenges due to their nexus to statutorily-prohibited benefits and due to ongoing reviews about how best to provide scarce resources,” Panetta wrote.

A Pentagon senior legal official at the briefing said the issue of housing was “sensitive” in 2010 as the Defense Department solicited comment among service members for its report on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” because of the sense there isn’t enough housing for service members under current policy already.

“It’s a very sensitive issue because we don’t have enough housing for everybody,” the official said. “The other thing that factors is because it’s sensitive and there is a limited amount, you end up bumping people, and there’s sensitivity behind that. So, the secretary is going to let the working group work through it a little bit longer before they make a final decision.”

Asked who decided that housing shouldn’t be extended at this time, the Pentagon senior official said, “the decision was made by the department, by the department that we would not extend housing at this time.”

Despite the lack of inclusion of some benefits, OutServe-SLDN — which has called for the extension of these benefits since August 2011, before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lifted — praised Panetta in a statement and described the move as “substantive.”

“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,” said Allyson Robinson, executive director of OutServe-SLDN.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said President Obama “welcomes” the benefits extension at the Pentagon. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney had previously told the Washington Blade the president was aware of the issue.

“The president welcomes the announcement by the Secretary of Defense that the department will extend certain benefits to the same-sex partners and families of service members based on its thorough and deliberate review of this issue,” Inouye said. “This step will strengthen our military and help ensure that all our troops and their families are treated with fairness and equality.”

The move will also be followed by the Coast Guard. In a statement following the news on Monday, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said she directed U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp to implement partner benefits along the lines of the ones enacted in other branches of the military.

“The Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Coast Guard stand with the Department of Defense on the extension of benefits for military same-sex partners,” Napolitano said. “The extension of benefits for military same-sex partners honors our Department’s guiding principles to treat all service members and applicants equally and with dignity and respect.”

Other benefits, such as health, pension and housing allowances, are precluded from gay service members because of Section 3 of DOMA. Litigation challenging that law, known as Windsor v. United States, is pending before the Supreme Court, and justices are expected to make a decision on the constitutionality of the law before their term ends in June.

Because implementation of these benefits won’t happen until months after the Supreme Court rules on DOMA, a decision from justices striking down the law could shake up which benefits will be afforded at that time.

“In the event that the Defense of Marriage Act is no longer applicable to the Department of Defense, it will be the policy of the Department to construe the words ‘spouse’ and ‘marriage’ without regard to sexual orientation, and married couples, irrespective of sexual orientation, and their dependents, will be granted full military benefits,” Panetta wrote.

The Pentagon senior official maintained the DOMA litigation had no impact on the timing to extend benefits and it was instead based on “what it takes to actually roll out the benefit.”

“Normally, you’re looking at eight months to a year or so,” the official said. “This is a very ambitious schedule. We’re really pressing hard to do this as quick as possible.”

The Pentagon senior legal official clarified the military IDs given to gay troops with same-sex partners or spouses will be different to denote these service members aren’t eligible for certain benefits under DOMA. The card won’t be a different color, although there will be a new code in place — “DP” — in the relationship category.

Gay service members need not be married to their same-sex partner for benefit eligibility. An unmarried same-sex couple can register with the Pentagon for benefits by signing a declaration attesting to the existence of their committed relationship. Benefits also may be available in some cases to the children of same-sex domestic partners.

The Pentagon senior official estimated the new benefits would reach 5,600 active duty troops, 3,400 members of the National Guard and Reserve and 8,000 retired service members. The official also said any cost of these benefits would be negligible on the federal government.

Pentagon officials have said since the time “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lifted in September 2011 that they’ve been reviewing the benefits issue, but no action has been taken until now. LGBT advocates, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said the military service chiefs objected to issuing these benefits because they believed the move would be seen as political if they were extended before the Supreme Court made a decision on DOMA.

The Pentagon senior legal official declined to comment on the opinion of the service chiefs when asked about any objections they might have had.

“There was a robust internal dialogue about all the issues,” the official said. “At the end of the day, the chiefs rendered their opinion and their advice to the secretary, and he considered it, and decided to do what he’s doing. To answer the question about what was the chiefs’ advice, I’ll defer to the chiefs.”

Beyond benefits, another move that LGBT advocates have been pushing for is an explicit non-discrimination policy for gay service members who feel they’re facing harassment or discrimination. OutServe-SLDN has said Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel upon confirmation “must use his authority to ban discrimination” against LGBT service members.

The Pentagon senior official suggested the Defense Department was disinclined to take this action, saying, “We have not changed our policy at this time.” Asked to clarify if such a move is on the table, the senior official said, “The Pentagon’s position is always to treat all members with dignity and respect regardless of sexual orientation, and that has not changed.”

There will also be exclusion of these benefits for the partners of gay service members who are now deceased. Following the briefing, Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christiansen confirmed “there will not be grandfathering of benefits” for partners and spouses in this situation. That means Karen Morgan — the spouse of Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan, who died Sunday after fighting DOMA and cancer — won’t be eligible for these benefits.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said the Pentagon took a “historic step” by extending these benefits, but said more work is necessary as long as DOMA is in place.

“It’s time to right this wrong,” Griffin said. “When the Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of DOMA in the coming weeks, they should take note of the real harm this law inflicts every day. The Court should reflect on the sacrifice made by Americans like Staff Sergeant Tracy Johnson, whose wife was killed in action late last year, or the family of Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan, who succumbed to cancer earlier this week. In both cases, DOMA barred specific benefits that could soften the tragic blow of the loss of a loved one.”

11
Feb
2013