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Which Benefits Are Available to LGB Military Families?

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Gay soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have been able to serve openly since September 20th, 2011, when the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was officially revoked. However, due to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the federal government is barred from recognizing same sex marriages – even if a couple was wed in a state where gay folks are permitted to do so.

Which means that many programs geared toward military families are not providing the full range of benefits to certain married service members, just as they don’t provide the full benefits to those service members who are not married. Higher dependent rates for Basic Allowance for Housing, Family Separation Allowance and many other benefits are among those currently inaccessible by gay married couples.

The federal government’s current stance on DOMA is that it will not defend the statute in court, leaving it open to groups to challenge it before the courts uncontested. Currently, there are several briefs working their way through the system, and one is already in federal appeals court. Just because the government won’t defend this law doesn’t mean that it’s a shoo-in, however. The law is up in the air, and probably depends as much on the upcoming election as it does on its slow crawl through the judiciary.

However, for gay service members who are currently serving, there are many benefits still available:

  1. Service Members Group Life Insurance. SGLI is, well, life insurance for service members. It pays out $400,000 if a service member is killed, regardless of whether the tragedy occurs in combat. Any service member can designate anyone to be their beneficiary, in either a lump sum or 36 equal payments. Thus, gay service members can designate their partners if they wish.
  2. Post Vietnam-era Veterans Assistance Program. VEAP is a program for service members to save extra money for education or vocational training. For every $1 they elect to take out of their paycheck, the government will put in $2. What makes this benefit different than the Post-9/11 GI Bill is that it’s a matched savings account, not an entitlement – and since it’s the service member’s money, it can be given to anyone, not just a dependent.
  3. All-volunteer Force Educational Assistance Program. AVFEAP is a supplemental education assistance program used in concert with the GI Bill. It also assists with service members who are transitioning out of the service and into education for a new job. Since it’s a direct payment, service members can use it for their non-married partners’ education or training.
  4. Death Gratuity.  The Death Gratuity is a lump sum of money that’s paid by the government to cover funeral expenses and other costs attenuating the death of a service member. If a service member dies stateside and not in a combat situation, the amount is $12,420. If the service member dies in a combat zone, the amount is $100,000. Like SGLI, anyone can be designated the beneficiary of this benefit. Usually, it goes to the Person Authorized Direct Disposition (also known as the PADD.) This is the person who is legally in charge of arranging for funerals, wakes or other ceremonies – and who is legally charged with disposing of the departed’s remains.
  5. Final Settlement of Accounts. This is any unpaid pay and allowances a service member is owed at the time of their death, including their basic pay, Basic Allowance for Housing, Basic Allowance for Sustenance, Hazard Pay and any other money that the service member has coming from the government. These can be designated to anyone, and are not limited to dependents.
  6. Wounded Warrior Designated Caregiver. Under the Wounded Warrior Act, service members can designate anyone they wish to be charged with their caretaking in case they’re rendered physically unable to do so through military service. The link is to the full text of the Wounded Warrior Act.
  7. Thrift Savings Plan. The Thrift Savings Plan is an automatic deduction from service members’ accounts, usually elected during basic training, that transfers up to 5% of the service member’s paycheck into a special savings account. Since it’s the service member’s own money, it can be withdrawn upon leaving the service and used for non-dependents if needed.
  8. Survivor Benefit. This is a monthly annuity paid to a designated survivor of a member if they die on active duty. For a full explanation, it’s best to click through to the link, as this is one of the more complicated off all the benefits in the package given to Americans serving in the military.
  9. Casualty Notification. If a service member is wounded or killed, they may designate a partner or anyone non-dependent to be notified by the military. Conversely, a service member may also elect that the military not notify someone in particular. This is usually done if a loved one is in poor health and it could be potentially dangerous for that person to learn of the service member’s death or injury.
  10. Escorts for Dependents of Deceased or Missing. Anyone is allowed to travel in conjunction with dependents if a service member is killed or goes missing. Gay military families with children are able to travel together as a family in this unfortunate circumstance, and there are a few other situations in which the partner of a gay or lesbian service member would be able to travel under this, as well. Escorts are arranged through the assigned Casualty Assistance Call Officer (CACO.)
  11. Designation of Persons Having Interest in Status of a Missing Member. Like the Casualty Notification, a gay or lesbian service member can designate their partner if they are determined to be Missing in Action by the military.
  12. Veterans’ Group Life Insurance. VGLI is the same benefit as SGLI, but it is paid to veterans who elect to continue paying for the coverage, rather than service members on active or reserve duty.
  13. Person Eligible to Receive Effects of Deceased Persons. Anyone, not just a dependent, can receive the possessions of a service member who dies while on active duty. These include uniforms and anything else that belonged to the service member (and was not part of a gear issue) at the time of their death. This is also arranged through the CACO.
  14. Travel and Transportation Allowance for Attendance at Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Events. Partners of gay and lesbian service members can be reimbursed mileage, airline tickets, per diem, lodging and other travel costs incurred while traveling to and from Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program functions. The exact specifications for what will and will not be paid – and what can and can not be reimbursed – are in the highly unreadable Joint Forces Travel Regulations (Volume 2) so it’s best to get in touch with the administrative/manpower office for a full explanation of these benefits.

For any of the benefits that are not linked, it’s because it’s not an expansive program, but a simple right that doesn’t have a wealth of web resources explaining it.  Many of the benefits listed above are actually legal rights that are exercised during a service member’s administrative audit, when he or she has to fill out a Record of Emergency Data and an SGLI form. These are supposed to happen annually, but service members can go to their administrative shop at any time and request to have an audit performed on their service record book and other documents.

The legal status of DOMA may not be settled for years, so benefits that are currently only available to married heterosexual service members won’t be opened to gay folks until the courts have worked through all of the challenges to the law. Until then, gay service members will have to continue planning their finances and retirements in the same fashion they have since long before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed. However, the stigma of designating a partner has now been legally repealed, so service members can enjoy the above benefits without fear of reprisal.

Did I miss any on this list? Let me know in the comments.

 

Comments

  1. Emma Nelson

    February 24, 2012

    Your listed “benefits” contain some errors and ambiguities which should be clarified.

    Casualty notification will go to the primary next of kin (PNOK) first and secondary next of kin (SNOK) if the PNOK isn’t available. LGBT partners should know that they can’t be PNOK or SNOK of service members as regulations now stand. Only after these notifications have been made will the Marine Corps (or other service) determine who is the PADD. And, incidentally, “anyone” cannot be a PADD. Read MARADMIN 421/05.

    “Anyone” IS allowed to travel if a service member is killed, if they’re willing to fly commercially on their own dime. Not “anyone” can do it on the military’s dime and not “anyone” will receive CACO assistance for said travel. If the military would let dependent children travel, they could be accompanied by a service member’s LBGT partner only if the partner is the child’s legal guardian. I’m curious where in the CACO instruction you found the travel guidelines you mentioned.

    I’m also curious where you found that partners could be reimbursed for “Yellow Ribbon” travel, as the regulations say only parents or spouses of members can attend.

    Although I strongly applaud your efforts to address the issues facing LBGT service members and their partners, I’m afraid you do a disservice when you put out misleading or incorrect information.

  2. David Blackman

    February 24, 2012

    There may be some confusion about dependents traveling. The instruction refers to family members moving away from the duty station after a service members death. For example, if you are stationed at Fort Lewis and you die, your dependents aren’t turfed out onto the mean streets of Tacoma with only a handshake. In that instance, the partner of the LGBT service member would not be eligible for travel unless they had some sort of legal standing (i.e., were the guardians or adoptive parent) with the service member’s dependent children.

    As a former CACO, I don’t envy CACOs in the future as these difficult issues become more commonplace.

    • Gabriel Coeli

      February 25, 2012

      David, you’re absolutely correct. The DoD has given this power to LGB servicemembers to grant that legal standing to their partners or spouses, simply by designating them as a person authorized to travel with dependents.

      You’re right that CACOs presently have an enormous and complicated duty, and it will only become more so as nontraditional families begin to take advantage of their benefits.

  3. Gabriel Coeli

    February 25, 2012

    Hi, Emma! I wanted to respond to your comments. This list of benefits is in sync with the Department of Defense’s official list. LGB spouses/partners can not be designated as PNOKs or SNOKs but can be designated as people to receive casualty notifications if specifically requested. Also, I didn’t write that anyone can be a PADD – I wrote that the Death Gratuity usually goes to the PADD, but a servicemember may request that the Death Gratuity go to someone else. Last, many LGB servicemembers do have children – either natural born from previous heterosexual relationships, or adopted – that are their legal dependents. In this case, an LGB partner/spouse can be designated to travel with those children if something tragic happens.The regulations may not have updated yet to reflect these changes, but the DoD has published the guidelines, and that supersedes ALMARs and MARADMINs.

  4. Emma Nelson

    February 27, 2012

    Next time why don’t you just link to the article that you copied that list from, rather than basically re-write a DoD news release? For everyone else’s edification, here’s the substance of Mr. Coeli’s article: http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=65857

    You insinuated an LBGT partner could be designated the PADD, or else why did you mention it?

    WHERE in the regulations does it say someone who has no legal connection to children can travel with them on government aircraft? Cite me the directive.

    Also, you’re incorrect that the DoD publishing the guidelines supersedes other directives! A press release on the DoD web site is NOT sufficient grounds for commanders to change their policy. If you’re active duty, you should know that!

    You need to be VERY careful – not only do you need to do a better job citing where you get your material, you also shouldn’t be in the business of providing people assurances that aren’t yet codified. If it doesn’t get promulgated as an order or directive, it isn’t regulations. Your saying “The regulations may not have updated yet to reflect these changes, but the DoD has published the guidelines, and that supersedes ALMARs and MARADMINs” lets me know you don’t really understand how the system works.

    As a former administrative officer I DO understand how the system works, and I cannot disagree more with some of the points you’re trying to make.

    Cite while you write, my friend. If you can’t cite where something is written, don’t present it as a fact. That’s just Blogging 101.

    • Gabriel Coeli

      February 27, 2012

      Emma, I neither “copied” any lists, nor re-wrote DoD News Releases. This article is an explanation of benefits – what they are, and how they pertain, if necessary. I didn’t link to the original list because it is available in many places, not just the DoD website, and at any rate, the list you reference isn’t particularly useful, as it merely states what benefits are available and doesn’t explain them. I will accept your criticism that I should link to that, and will e-mail the editor to ask her to update my article to reflect that.

      I am currently serving as an administrator. I feel confident that I know what I’m talking about. I have made no false promises to anyone. I should say that mentioning something does not equal insinuating it. By default, most servicemembers elect to have their Death Gratuity go to their PADD, because the Death Gratuity is intended to help defray funeral or other ceremonial costs. However, per the DoD, they may elect to give the Death Gratuity to someone else. The reason I mention it is that the Death Gratuity, in most circumstances, is intended for the PADD or whomever is financially responsible for services.

      I am merely seeking to explain the benefits that the DoD has reported are available to LGB families. I don’t know what the Air Force’s administrative guidance is on these benefits, nor do I know the Navy’s or Army’s. I do know that ALMARs and MARADMINs can not supersede, contradict or countermand DoD directives, so the fact that one does not exist does not mean that LGB servicemembers don’t rate the benefits that the DoD says they do. If I had an extra dollar for every hour I’ve spent trying to figure out how to handle situations that don’t have guidelines – or don’t have clear guidelines – or don’t have Marine Corps guidance, but have DoD guidance, or have Marine Corps guidance that seemingly doesn’t line up with DoD guidance (the JFTR/PAAN/TAAN quagmires have haunted my nightmares) then I could have retired by now. I do know how the system works, and I know that a lot of times MARADMINs, PAANs, TAANs are reactionary – released in response to a lack of clear guidance, or released in response to a problem.

      In response to your statement that DoD guidelines are not sufficient grounds for commanders to change your policy, this seems to be a reference to the bureaucracy; I don’t deny that the military is very, very slow at these kinds of things. But I also understand the chain of command – if the SecDef says it’s so, it’s so. No matter whether or not the Commandant or the Commander of I MEF or MARFORRES or anyone else has created or implemented policies.

      One thing I can say for sure – I totally understand your concern in “promising” benefits to LGB families who don’t rate them. But they DO rate them. If the branches haven’t determined their specific methodology for awarding them, they will do so soon…or after the first LGB servicemember comes looking for them or Requests Mast up to the CG.

      But the point is here is that I don’t make the rules – DoD does. And they say these are the rules. All I’m doing is explaining them.

      • David Blackman

        February 27, 2012

        If citation problems are an issue for anyone reading your article, have them check out

        http://www.public.navy.mil/bupers-npc/reference/messages/Documents/NAVADMINS/NAV2012/NAV12028.txt

        It’s a NAVADMIN that seconds your article admirably, AND is MUCH more official than a press release! Do Marine commands get NAVADMINS? I have no idea, but if they do this would be their guidance just as much as a MARADMIN, would it not?

        Keep on truckin’!!

        David

        • Gabriel Coeli

          February 28, 2012

          Hi David. Thanks for that. NAVADMINS don’t, to the best of my knowledge, apply to Marine Corps administration, and I’ve certainly never seen one show up in the AMHS box or on Marines.mil, but it’s helpful to know that at least one of the branches of service has published specific guidelines on implementing these benefits. I appreciate it!

  5. jennt

    January 9, 2013

    One thing I can say for sure – I totally understand your concern in “promising” benefits to LGB families who don’t rate them. But they DO rate them. If the branches haven’t determined their specific methodology for awarding them, they will do so soon…or after the first LGB servicemember comes looking for them or Requests Mast up to the CG. http://verchini.com/day-nit