Texas Nat’l Guard withholding spousal benefits for gay troops

blog_2_1_.jpgAmid celebration for many gay service members on the day that the Pentagon begins to award same-sex spousal benefits, the Texas Military Forces is apparently withholding such benefits for gay troops on the basis that state law prohibits same-sex marriage.

Alicia Butler, an Austin, Texas, attorney, said she was rejected when she tried to register with the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System, or DEERS, the military’s health benefits system, when she applied on Tuesday at Camp Mabry, where her spouse, Judith Chedville, a nurse and Iraq war veteran, is stationed as a member of the National Guard.

“We were told that Texas would not register us into the system and would not issue an ID card for me,” Butler said. “We were told that if she was active duty they would do that for me, but not for a National Guard member because she’s part of the Texas National Guard.”

The explanation the couple was given, Butler said, was that they were denied because she and her spouse are the same gender. Butler said she and her spouse were legally married in California.

Butler added she and her spouse were directed to another facility in Texas that is run by the federal government.

“They told us to go to a different facility, such as Ft. Hood in San Antonio, where the federal government runs the facility, so that we could get the ID card,” Butler said. “That’s an hour-and-a-half drive for me, and we have a five-month-old, so that’s kind of hard.”

But Butler, 43, added even if she and her spouse made that trip, Camp Mabry would still not recognize her as the spouse of Chedville, 38, at that facility.

“We were also told that even if my spouse went there without me and got the registration and that all taken care of, Camp Mabry still would not take my photograph and issue the ID, which is something that’s normally done,” Butler said.

Butler said she was left with the impression that Camp Mabry would continue to deny benefits for guard members with same-sex spouses “indefinitely.”

Tuesday marks the first day that the U.S. armed forces started offering partner benefits, including military IDs, to troops with same-sex spouses after a period of implementation this year. In the wake of the Supreme Court decision against the Defense of Marriage Act, gay troops are now eligible for major spousal benefits, including health and pension benefits as well as equal access to housing.

Butler said she was denied benefits as the American Military Partner Association, an LGBT military group, says it was leaked guidance indicating that Texas Military Forces, or the Texas National Guard, wouldn’t honor the U.S. armed forces’ plan to begin offering partner benefits to gay troops because the Texas Constitution prohibits same-sex marriage.

“The TXMF is a state agency under the authority and direction of the Texas state government,” the guidance states. “Therefore, the TXMF must consider that the Texas Constitution and Texas Family Code 6.204 conflicts with the DoD policy extending benefits to same-sex spouses. Due to this potential conflict, we are unable to enroll same-sex families into DEERs at our state supported facilities until we receive legal clarification.”

Similar to what Butler and Chedville were told, the guidance says troops who are affected by this issue should seek a federal facility to apply for benefits.

“However, the TXMF remains committed to ensuring its military personnel and their families receive the benefits to which they are entitled,” the guidance states. “As such, we encourage anyone affected by this issue to enroll for benefits at a federal installation.”

The American Military Partner Association has a photo of the guidance written on an official and letterhead signed by Adjutant General Maj. Gen. John Nichols. It’s posted at the end of this article.

Laura Lopez, a Texas Military Forces spokesperson, confirmed the guidance is accurate, but said she doesn’t known when the legal uncertainty cited in the guidance will be resolved.

“Our goal in the Texas Military Forces is to provide the benefits available to our Soldiers and Airmen under existing federal law and policy, while also adhering to applicable Texas state law,” Lopez said. “The Texas Military Forces will continue to follow state law until legal clarification is determined. It is important to note that Soldiers and Airmen are not being denied these benefits, there are multiple locations throughout the state where they can enroll for same sex benefits.”

Lopez added unlike Fort Hood or Randolph Air Force Base, Camp Mabry receives state funding for property, equipment, and personnel, so personnel and the operation of facilities are subject to Texas state law.

“Despite the legal conflict, the TXMF remains committed to ensuring military personnel and their families receive the benefits to which they are entitled,” Lopez said. “As such, we fully support same-sex families enrolling for benefits at the nearest federal installation.”

Stephen Peters, president of the American Military Partner Association, said the apparent decision to withhold benefits is a “disgrace” for Texas and Perry “should be ashamed.”

“Our military families are already facing enough challenges, and discrimination from the state of Texas only compounds those challenges,” Peter said. “It’s simply disgusting that Gov. Perry would try to play politics with our military families. Considering the far majority of the funding for the Texas Guard facilities comes from the federal government, I don’t believe they have a leg to stand on.”

Jeremy Johnson, co-chair of the newly formed LGBT military group SPART*A, said withholding benefits to gay troops in Texas amounts to state-sanctioned discrimination and the issue should be resolved immediately.

“The Department of Defense no longer discriminates against same-sex military families and instead embraces them as an important part of the support structure for uniformed members,” Johnson said. “This announcement by Texas Military Forces makes clear that that they are either unwilling or incapable of doing the same. If that is the case, the Department of Defense must ensure that there is no question about the rights of same-sex military families and their ability to access the benefits to which they are entitled.”

It’s not immediately clear if Texas is the only state that is withholding benefits for troops with same-sex partners, although the Washington Blade has heard of no other reports of states refusing to grant these benefits.

Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, a Pentagon spokesperson, said he’s unable to confirm the Texas guidance, but said federal military installations in the state will provide a military ID to troops with same-sex spouses.

“All Federal Military installations in Texas will issue IDs to all who provide a valid marriage certificate from a jurisdiction that recognizes same-sex marriage,” Christensen said.

 

(WashingtonBlade)

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