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Pentagon extending benefits to same-sex military spouses

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Tracy Dice Johnson and her wife, Sgt. Donna Johnson, are shown in a portrait, while Donna's military portrait hangs at rear. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome) Tracy Dice Johnson and her wife, Sgt. Donna Johnson, are shown in a portrait, while Donna's military portrait hangs at rear. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Spouses Deborah Graham-Dunbar and Tania Dunbar enjoy lunch in downtown Fayetteville on Wednesday afternoon. Spouses Deborah Graham-Dunbar and Tania Dunbar enjoy lunch in downtown Fayetteville on Wednesday afternoon.

Same-sex spouses of military members will be eligible for the same health care, housing and other benefits enjoyed by opposite-sex spouses starting Sept. 3, the Pentagon said Wednesday.

The decision follows consultation with the Justice Department and the Supreme Court's ruling in June on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act.

"It is now the department's policy to treat all married military personnel equally," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in memo Wednesday to senior Pentagon officials.

For Deborah Graham-Dunbar the announcement was welcomed news. She has been married to her wife Tania since 2011. Tania is a soldier based at Fort Bragg, but they got married in Washington D.C., months before they could be open about their relationship because of the "don't ask don't tell" policy in the military.  For them and other same-sex married couples, the announcement means a lot.

"That our families will start getting the same benefits that  my spouse works for every single day and that our family needs," Graham-Dunbar said.

The Defense of Marriage Act prohibited the federal government from recognizing any marriage other than that between a man and a woman. In late June, the Supreme Court cleared the way for legally married gay couples to be recognized under federal law. 

Graham-Dunbar said since that Supreme Court decision many same-sex married military couples have been eager to hear about equal benefits being extended. She heard many of those anticipations from people she knows through an organization she co-founded – the Military Partners and Families Coalition.

"We finally have a date," Graham-Dunbar said. "It was making people pretty anxious, including myself, to not have a set date of when it would happen."         

The benefits will be made available to same-sex spouses as long as the service member provides a valid marriage certificate. Military personnel in a same-sex relationship who are stationed in a state that does not permit same-sex marriage will be allowed to take leave for travel to a jurisdiction where they can marry legally.

"This will provide accelerated access to the full range of benefits offered to married military couples throughout the department, and help level the playing field between opposite-sex and same-sex couples seeking to be married," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman.

Defense officials estimate there are 18,000 same-sex couples in the active-duty military, National Guard and Reserves and among military retirees. It's unclear how many of those are married.

The Pentagon ban on gays serving openly in the military, called "don't ask, don't tell," was dropped in September 2011.

Veteran Jon Fisher, formerly based at Fort Bragg, said he does not like the idea of extending military benefits to same-sex spouses.

"I have nothing against gay people at all. However, where I object to it is introducing that stuff into the Army, into the military," Fisher said.

He said he believes allowing same-sex spouses to have equal military benefits continues a trend that undermines traditional values that have helped the military succeed.

"I just think it's unmanly for males to be dependant on other males. I think a male is supposed to make his way in the world," Fisher said. "I'm sorry that's just an old-school belief.  Probably people don't say that out loud very much, but that is how I feel."

Graham-Dunbar said she feels differently.

"I don't agree because the traditional values of the military are strong families and strong military. The way you create strong families is by supporting your families," she said. "You can't support half of your military families and not support the other half."

The benefits aren't just important for health care or housing perks, Graham-Dunbar said. There are all sorts of things that being recognized as a spouse will allow her to do – basically to be a military spouse like anyone else.

"I don't have base access without her with me," she said in reference to her wife. "I can't shop at the PX. I can't do some of the basic things that our heterosexual counterparts take for granted every single day."

She recalled a family day at Fort Stewart when the couple was living in Georgia. She said the couple's two children went with Tania to the post to celebrate the family day, but Graham-Dunbar stayed behind because she wasn't recognized as a spouse to the military.

"For the first time it really hit me just how much I was not a part of the military family – how I couldn't be included in something like a family day," Graham-Dunbar said. "I think after they left I just spent the time crying because it just hurt that much to not be included in that."

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