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Gay troops continue the fight for benefits

WASHINGTON — Before breast cancer takes her life, Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan wants to know whether the military will take care of her widow.

The 17-year Army guardsman learned in September that her cancer, thought to be in remission, had returned and spread. She says she has no idea how long she has left to live.

A few weeks before the diagnosis, Morgan had returned from a yearlong deployment to the Middle East. A few weeks after the diagnosis, the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” law was repealed, and Morgan could publicly acknowledge her longtime partner for the first time.

The devastating health news amid those two celebrations brought the reality that if Morgan dies, her wife, Karen — a stay-at-home mom caring for their 4-year-old daughter, Casey, as well as for Morgan — won’t be eligible for military health care benefits, Social Security payouts or base access.

To complicate matters further, her daughter will have access to those benefits but won’t be able to use them fully if Karen is shut out. “And this isn’t just me and my family,” Morgan said. “There are so many others being hurt by this.”

Morgan was on Capitol Hill on Thursday, meeting with Republicans including members of House Speaker John Boehner’s staff. Her lobbying is part of the larger fight of advocates working to use the momentum of last year’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal to win more rights for gay troops, giving them all the same privileges as their straight counterparts.

At issue is the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal agencies from recognizing same-sex marriages when administering employment benefits.

White House officials have pushed in recent years to circumvent the law, creating a patchwork of exceptions across departments allowing couples partial access to some of the same privileges of their straight married counterparts.

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Last month, rights groups announced a summit in Washington, D.C., to be held this spring to push for solutions to the benefits problems, including efforts similar to those that preceded “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal.

Days later, officials of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network chastised Pentagon leaders for not offering more equality to same-sex spouses. Specifically, they said, spouses should have access to military identification cards and military housing, and when both partners serve, they should get preference for joint-duty assignments.

Defense officials note that they have made exceptions in the benefits to accommodate gay troops, including allowing same-sex partners to receive military life insurance payouts, granting certain survivor benefits and caregiver responsibilities, and giving certain family travel allowances.

But they also insist that the Defense of Marriage Act specially bars them from granting health care and housing benefits, and that Congress will have to act to lift those restrictions.

Right now, that looks unlikely.

Republican leaders in the House have worked in recent months to reinforce the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, introduced legislation last month to ban use of military facilities for same-sex marriages. And last year, similar measures spelling out the DOMA restrictions were approved as part of the annual defense budget bill, before being dropped by the Senate in later drafts.

Boehner has led efforts to defend the law in federal litigation, after President Barack Obama announced he would no longer direct the Department of Justice to do so.

Two cases challenging the military’s denial of benefits to same-sex couples are pending before federal courts, asking for DOMA to be struck down as unconstitutional.

Morgan is a co-defendant in one of those lawsuits. Following her meetings last week, she said she remains hopeful that conservative lawmakers will change their minds, even though Boehner’s staffers told her their support of the law remains unchanged.

“At the very least, I feel like I’m doing everything I can to put the issue out there while I’m still here,” she said. “I just don’t have the time to wait for an answer anymore.”

shanel@stripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @LeoShane

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