Gay spouses face acceptance fight in U.S. military

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SANFORD, N.C. -- First Lt. Nakisha Hardy spent the first nine months of her marriage on a remote Army base in Afghanistan, a tour of duty punctuated by sporadic mortar blasts and constant emails to her spouse back home.

The strains of that separation lingered even after Lt. Hardy returned to Fort Bragg in September. So she signed up for a military retreat to help soldiers and their husbands and wives cope with the pressures of deployments and relocations.

But less than 24 hours after arriving at the retreat near Sanford, she and her spouse were told to leave. The military chaplains who organized the program last month said that the couple were making others uncomfortable. They said they had determined that under federal law the program could serve only heterosexual married couples.

Lt. Hardy is a lesbian in a same-sex marriage who had hoped that the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in 2011 would allow her to fully participate in military life. But she and many other gay and bisexual service members say they continue to encounter a raft of rules and regulations barring them from receiving benefits and privileges routinely accorded to heterosexual service members.

Lt. Hardy had been assured by the chaplain's office in the weeks before the retreat that she and her wife were welcome to attend. The chaplains said in hindsight that those assurances were given in error.

"I felt hurt, humiliated," said Lt. Hardy, 28. "These were people I had been deployed with. And they were telling me I can go to fight the war on terrorism with them, but I can't attend a seminar with them to keep my marriage healthy."

Gay marriage is now legal in nine states and in Washington, D.C. But because same-sex marriages are not recognized under federal law, the spouses of gay service members are barred from receiving medical and dental insurance and surviving spouse benefits and are not allowed to receive treatment in military medical facilities. Spouses are also barred from receiving military identification cards, which provide access to many community activities and services on base, including movie theaters, day care centers, gyms and commissaries.

Gay service members who are married are not permitted to receive discounted housing that is routinely provided to heterosexual married couples.

The disparities have galvanized some married service members and their spouses to fire off angry letters to members of Congress, to blog about their experiences and to demand meetings with their commanders to protest their treatment.

Advocacy groups, including the American Military Partner Association and OutServe-SLDN, are pressing lawmakers and Pentagon officials to rectify the situation.

Meanwhile, military commanders are struggling to navigate the new terrain, sorting through rules and regulations to determine what is permissible and what is not. No longer forced to hide their sexuality, some soldiers are prodding their leaders to rethink the status quo.

"Commanders are in a challenging environment right now," said Tammy Schultz, director of the national security and joint warfare program at the Marine Corps War College, and the co-editor of "The End of Don't Ask, Don't Tell: The Impact in Studies and Personal Essays by Service Members and Veterans."

"You've got these dueling regulations going on for different segments of the population based on sexual orientation," Ms. Schultz said.

This month, Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama's nominee for defense secretary, vowed to change that. Mr. Hagel, who has been criticized for making disparaging comments about a gay diplomat 14 years ago, pledged to "do everything possible to the extent permissible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our service members."

He outlined his position in a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

Some of the restrictions stem from the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, which denies legally married same-sex couples the same federal benefits afforded to heterosexual couples.

The Obama administration has argued that the law is unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on the matter in March. Currently, however, the law defines marriage as a union solely between a man and a woman for the purposes of 1,000 federal laws and programs.

Other restrictions -- on military family housing, relocation benefits and access to legal assistance, commissaries and military identification cards -- stem from Defense Department regulations that military officials and gay advocates say could be changed without legislative action.

Defense officials say they are considering whether to revise those regulations.

In the meantime, gay service members and their spouses say that the policies and regulations are taking their toll.

Sgt. Karen Alexander, a chemical and biological specialist at Fort Bragg, said she and her wife, Allison Hanson, were receiving about $1,300 a month less than they would be if they were a heterosexual married couple. Ms. Hanson said she had to drop out of college last year to find a job to help pay their bills.

Bobby McDaniel, the husband of a lieutenant colonel stationed in Central America, had to cover his own airfare when his spouse was stationed there. The military also declined to support his request for a diplomatic visa, a privilege typically granted to heterosexual spouses, so he has to leave the country where they live every three months to apply for another visitor's visa.

It is a financial hardship. But he said the psychic toll was greater.

"It just kind of eats away at you," Mr. McDaniel said. "It makes you feel like you're not a complete person."

As for Lt. Hardy, a spokeswoman for the chaplain who organized the couples' program said that she was ineligible for the retreat under the Defense of Marriage Act.

"His hands were tied," said Lt. Col. Virginia McCabe, the public affairs officer for the 82nd Airborne Division. "But he definitely wanted to provide counsel to them."

Lt. Hardy said the offer of one-on-one counseling felt like an insult. She declined and met instead with her commanding officer to register a complaint. She also wrote letters to Mr. Obama and to Larry Kissell, then a North Carolina congressman.

She says the hardest thing to bear is that she was turned away by a chaplain who had served with her in Afghanistan.



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