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The Pentagon on Monday unveiled a new list of spouse-like benefits available to the companions of gay and lesbian troops who make an official declaration of their "domestic partnership."
Under the new rules that will take effect later this year, same-sex partners regardless of whether they are legally married under state law can be granted military ID cards, access to commissaries and family programs and other perks and privileges that until now were limited to military spouses.
The Defense Department, however, will not extend Tricare health insurance or with-dependent housing allowance rates to same-sex couples because those benefits are legally restricted to "spouses."
Pentagon lawyers say extending those benefits is barred under the 1996 federal law known as the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
The department also stopped short of offering several other benefits that are not explicitly prohibited under the DOMA law, but present "complex legal and policy challenges," according to a senior defense official.
Those include on-base family housing, burial rights for Arlington National and other veterans' cemeteries, and the extension of command sponsorship to the same-sex partners of troops stationed overseas. Denying command sponsorship makes it difficult for same-sex partners to obtain visas and exercise certain legal rights in foreign countries.
"Our work is not finished," the senior defense official said. "The military services will continue to review these benefits to determine how best to ensure that all service members are treated equally regardless of sexual orientation."
One of the reasons that on-base military family housing will remain off-limits to same-sex couples is because there is a shortage of family housing at many installations, making it an especially sensitive issue for many troops.
"The concern was [that some troops would say] ‘I'm married and now I'm going to be bumped by this other person who is not married,'" said one senior Pentagon attorney who worked on the new policy.
Official estimates suggest the changes will affect about 17,000 same-sex partners across the military community, including about 5,600 domestic partners of active-duty troops, 3,400 from the reserve components and about 8,000 same-sex partners of military retirees, the senior defense official said.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordered the services to develop an implementation plan during the next 60 days and to make the changes no later than Oct. 1.
The list of benefits to be extended includes:
Dependent ID cards offering access to military installations
Joint-duty assignments for same-sex couples who are both in the military
Emergency leave of absence
Space-available travel on military aircraft
On-base child care for children of same-sex couples
Access to youth programs and family center programs
Access to legal assistance and sexual assault counseling programs
Participation in surveys of military families
Commissary and exchange privileges
Access to MWR programs
To accommodate gay troops, the Defense Department has created a new legal document entitled the "Declaration of Domestic Partnership" that will serve as troops' official designation of their same-sex beneficiary. In it the couple must attest to the fact they are "each other's sole domestic partner, in a committed relationship and intend to remain so indefinitely."
The new rules will require gay troops to notify their service if that relationship ends.
The option to declare a domestic partnership will be limited to gay troops. For the rest of the force, legal marriage will be required before the military extends similar benefits for heterosexual romantic partners.