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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.