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Navy vet leading legal effort for gay benefits

Aug. 15, 2013 - 06:34PM   |  
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HARTFORD, CONN. — An 18-year Navy veteran from Norwich is joining forces with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal to try to persuade the federal Department of Veterans Affairs to abide by a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling concerning gay marriage and extend all federal benefits to veterans with same-sex spouses.

Carmen Cardona, who worked for years as an aviation mechanic and Navy cook and has carpal tunnel syndrome, is the plaintiff in the lead lawsuit challenging the department’s policies. She filed the lawsuit, with help from the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School, after being denied a $150 increase in her monthly disability compensation from the VA, something she would’ve automatically received if she’d married a man.

“Yes, the spousal benefits I am entitled to will make a difference in my household,” Cardona said during a news conference at the Legislative Office Building with Blumenthal on Thursday. “But the most important thing is not the money. It’s like I said, the principle, the freedom. … We are veterans. We deserve it, whether we are gay or heterosexual.”

Efforts to extend VA benefits to same-sex couples come as the Department of Defense announced on Wednesday it would extend benefits to same-sex spouses of uniformed service members and civilian employees by Sept. 3. Blumenthal said he doesn’t understand why the VA isn’t following suit.

“I am perplexed and mystified as well as outraged by the refusal of (VA Secretary Eric Shinseki) to recognize same-sex spouses, as entitled to equal benefits,” said Blumenthal, adding how “it is now the law of the land” following the Supreme Court’s decision in June.

The high court voted 5-4 in favor of wiping away part of the federal anti-gay marriage law, the Defense of Marriage Act, which has kept legally married same-sex couples from receiving federal tax, health and pension benefits otherwise available to married couples. The ruling applied to people who were married and live in states that allow same-sex marriage, like Connecticut.

Earlier this week, the Democratic senator wrote to President Barack Obama, asking him to immediately direct the VA to upgrade its regulations and grant full benefits to all veterans and their spouses. Shinseki had written to Blumenthal in July, saying his agency would continue to recognize only opposite-gender couples, as defined by federal code, until the Department of Justice or the president directed the agency to do otherwise.

A student law intern at the Veterans Legal Services Clinic, Jennifer McTiernan, said Cardona’s case is pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. Should Cardona prevail, the ruling would affect all veterans.

The VA’s policy also is being challenged in cases before federal courts in Massachusetts and California.

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