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Benefits for same-sex spouses might help AF couple with assignment request

With the lifting of "don't ask, don't tell," Air Force Master Sgt. Angela Shunk, left, and Tech. Sgt. Stacey Shunk don't have to hide their relationship to protect their careers. But the couple, who were legally married in March, face an uncertain future together. Their exhaustive efforts to try to be considered for jobs at the same location after their current assignments end later this year at Aviano Air Base, Italy, have so far failed.

First Angela and Stacey Shunk were thrilled not to have to hide their relationship. Now an expected DOD announcement could restore their hope of staying together instead of bracing for a separation when their current assignments end.

When she heard that the Pentagon is preparing to extend some benefits to the same-sex partners of servicemembers, “I felt almost as excited as I did when ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was repealed,” Angela Shunk said by email Wednesday.

The Air Force has denied repeated requests from Shunk, an Air Force master sergeant based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, and her wife, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Stacey Shunk, for the service to try and find them an assignment at the same duty location after their current assignments end later this year.

Though Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has reportedly not made a final decision on which benefits will be included, the Shunks are hopeful joint assignment consideration will be one of them.

An announcement is expected in the next several days, The Associated Press reported, coming as Panetta finishes his tenure as Pentagon chief and following President Barack Obama’s broad call for equal rights for gays during his inaugural speech.

“It has been a long time coming, but we feel confident if the DOD decides to extend benefits immediately,” it will be in time for the couple to be stationed together, Angela Shunk said. But if the announcement says “benefits will be extended sometime in the future,” she said, the Shunks expect they’ll be treated as single airmen in the assignment process and sent to separate duty locations.

With the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in September 2011, Angela and Stacey Shunk were elated not to have to hide their relationship to protect their careers. After dating only a few months, the two airmen wed in March on the idyllic Bow Bridge in New York’s Central Park.

They proudly show wedding photos, something they might not have felt comfortable doing had they married a year earlier, before the lifting of the restriction that prohibited gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.

But the lifting of that burden was tempered by the sobering reality of life in the military post-DADT, where their requests to be considered for an assignment at the same duty location after they leave Aviano have so far been turned down.

While each branch of the service has programs that try to match military spouses with jobs at the same base, same-sex military couples haven’t been afforded that consideration because of a federal law that prevents U.S. government entities from recognizing their marriages.

The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act “kicks in” whenever the word “spouse” appears in any federal law or regulation, said David McKean, legal director at OutServe-SLDN, a national gay rights group that supports servicemembers, veterans and their families. “It means husband or wife of the opposite sex.”

The law has shut out same-sex civilian spouses of servicemembers from important benefits such as medical care and base housing, as well as perks such as space-available travel and base access privileges.

Some of those inequities could be fixed if the Supreme Court overturns DOMA. The court announced recently that it would hear a case from New York that challenges the federal government’s right to deny benefits to gay and lesbian couples married in states that permit same-sex unions.

What’s perplexing about the Shunks’ case is that the Air Force could approve their request while working within existing regulations — and not violating DOMA, McKean says, but it has refused.

The Shunks requested an “exception to policy” for a military couple assignment. The Air Force notes in its assignments guidance that exceptions to the Join Spouse policy may be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Members may seek an exception to a policy, procedure or other provision “when compliance with a requirement would result in an injustice, a severe inequity, or a personal hardship significantly greater than other Airmen encounter in similar circumstances.”

When the Air Force turned down the Shunks’ first request, they submitted a second one, providing more detail on how a permanent separation would affect them.

“I guess we were naive going into this, thinking we would be granted an exception” by stating the obvious, Angela Shunk said during a recent interview via Skype, “that being separated would cause us financial hardship and also emotional hardship from being separated from each other.”

The women went back and revealed they were attempting to start a family.

“I’m almost 33; Stacey is 31,” Angela Shunk said. “With the end of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ I’m thinking, ‘Great, I can move on with life and maybe have a family.’ But if we can’t be stationed at the same location, that hurts our chances of moving on in normal fashion.”

The Shunks told the Air Force that being separated would make it difficult to conceive a child through medical procedures or be accepted as prospective parents into an adoption program.

The Air Force politely, but firmly, denied their second request.

“We understand the difficulties involved if not assigned to the same location and realize the impact it would have to their family plans, as well as the financial and emotional impact,” the Air Force said in its denial, according to the response provided by the Shunks. “However, it is not sufficient justification to provide them special assignment consideration we are not prepared to provide others in similar circumstances.”

The Air Force, in its response to the Shunks, never specifically cited DOMA but said “that current join spouse assignment policies have not been established to include Air Force members in same-sex marriages. Given that restriction, we cannot provide them the same assignment consideration that we would provide to traditional married military couples.”

In closing, the Air Force says, “we realize this is not the desired response but circumstances preclude a more favorable reply.”

The Shunks also appealed to Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., whose office contacted the Air Force on the couple’s behalf, to no avail. The Air Force said in its letter to Nelson — a copy of which was made available to Stars and Stripes by the Shunks — that “given the restrictions of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), we cannot recognize a same-sex marriage for join spouse assignment consideration.”

In addition to the Shunks’ two formal requests, the Air Force last year received another request from a same-sex military couple for join spouse assignment consideration, said Lt. Col. Laurel Tingley, an Air Force spokeswoman at the Pentagon. The service in 2012 was also contacted seven times by individuals requesting information on assignment possibilities or raising concerns on behalf of an airman under their purview, sent to the Air Force Personnel Center by commanders, command chiefs, first sergeants and a base-level staff judge advocate, Tingley said. “No join spouse assignment consideration was provided given current DOD and Air Force policy,” Tingley said in a written response. In two situations, however, the Air Force was able to get same sex couples assigned to the same location via other assignment programs; in one case, it was the base of preference assignment program, and in the other, it was the student assignment swap program, Tingley said.

She emphasized that join spouse assignment is not a guarantee for married, heterosexual active-duty couples.

“While the Air Force does all it can to keep married military couples assigned together when that is their desire, the main consideration in all assignment decisions is the needs of the Air Force,” she wrote, adding there must be “valid manning needs” for both airmen’s specialities at the same location.

The Navy has received no formal requests from married, active-duty same-sex couples for spouse co-location, said Lt. Lauryn Dempsey, a Navy spokeswoman at the Pentagon.

An Army spokesman at the Pentagon said, under current regulations, same-sex couples are not eligible for the Army’s Married Army Couples Program, in which enrollment allows married Army couples to be considered for assignments at the same location. Army officials could not say how many requests they’ve received for enrollment into the program from same-sex Army couples.

The Air Force in its letter to Nelson mentioned that the Defense Department-appointed Joint Benefits Review working group is “diligently” examining benefits for possible extension to same-sex military domestic partners under provisions of the current law.

That working group, which began its review two years ago, has presented its recommendations to the service chiefs and defense secretary, McKean said.

The lack of action is extremely frustrating, McKean said. “It just seems to be inconsistent with the way the military does things,” he said. “They’re uniform in terms of their treatment of their servicemembers. This is an area where they deviated from that and I don’t know why.”

Unless Panetta announces swift changes to joint-duty assignments for same-sex military couples, the Shunks feel their military careers are in limbo. Stacey Shunk has been in the military 13 years, Angela Shunk 14, and they’d both like to retire from the service but say one of them may have to give up her military career so they can start a family.

“Honestly, we feel like we’re stuck,” Angela Shunk said.

svanj@estripes.osd.mil
 

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