Gay military couples could soon have access to the same benefits as their heterosexual counterparts with today’s Supreme Court decision striking down part of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Gay military couples could soon have access to the same benefits as their heterosexual counterparts with today’s Supreme Court decision striking down part of the Defense of Marriage Act. (Amanda L. Boston/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON – Same-sex partners of servicemembers will soon be able to get military ID cards, fly space-available on military aircraft, shop at the commissary, visit their loved ones in military hospitals and access other benefits, defense officials said Monday. But on-base housing, medical benefits, visa assistance, burial in veterans’ cemeteries and other significant benefits will still be off-limits.

The change is the result of a Pentagon review, which began when the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law was repealed in 2011, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a written statement.

“It is a matter of fundamental equity that we provide similar benefits to all of those men and women in uniform who serve their country,” Panetta said.

Same-sex couples do not need to be legally married in one of the states that permits same-sex marriage, but they do need to sign a “declaration of domestic partnership” to receive many of the new benefits. The benefits for same-sex domestic partners include dependent ID cards, commissary and exchange privileges, emergency leave, joint duty assignments and disability and death compensation for dependents of servicemembers held captive.

The services must now create plans to implement the changes, with a goal of offering all the new benefits to same-sex partners by Oct. 1 at the latest.

Still, Panetta said, the Defense Department cannot legally offer some benefits to same-sex spouses because of existing statutes and the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman.

Housing is one benefit that is not expressly disallowed by DOMA, but is still under review by the department, defense officials said, in part because extending that benefit would “violate the spirit of the law.”

Command sponsorship of military spouses for overseas assignments and medical benefits are also limited to opposite-sex partners for now, officials said.

“If the event that the Defense of Marriage Act is no longer applicable to the Department of Defense, it will be the policy of the department to construe the words ‘spouse’ and ‘marriage’ without regard to sexual orientation, and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 in a memo to the service secretaries.

Defense officials said they aren’t sure how many people will be impacted by the change, but believe there are about 5,600 partners of active-duty servicemembers, 3,400 in the national guard and reserve, and about 8,000 retiree partners. The costs of extending the benefits will be “negligible,” a defense official said.

Allyson Robinson, executive director of advocacy group OutServe-SLDN, praised Panetta for taking steps toward equal benefits for same-sex partners. But, she said, same-sex spouses are still “far… from true equality.”

“I hope our Supreme Court justices are watching as these events unfold, and that they see that striking down DOMA is the only way this unjust and untenable situation can be rectified,” she said.

The Supreme Court is expected in late March to consider a lawsuit challenging DOMA’s constitutionality. Until then, Panetta said, “the department will continue to comply with current law while doing all we can to take care of all soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and their families.” Twitter: @jhlad

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