Ask Lambda Legal - Marriage and Military Spousal Benefits
My husband is a military service member, and we recently tied the knot! I’ve read that we now have access to military spousal benefits but am not sure if that’s true. Can you clarify what is available to us?
Congratulations! Lambda Legal has been working on winning the freedom to marry for same-sex couples across the country, and hearing about happy, committed couples getting married is always great news. There are thousands of protections and responsibilities that come with marriage, and that is especially true for military service members and their families.
In June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a historic decision that struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, granting federal marriage benefits to same-sex couples who get married in states where gay and lesbian couples can be legally wed. After that important ruling, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) issued a directive that requires the military to provide spousal and family benefits, including identification cards, to same-sex military spouses in the same manner as any other military spouse.
Spousal and family benefits are important for many military families across the country. In order to receive these benefits, you must be enrolled in the federal Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS). Enrollment in DEERS provides access to many benefits, including TRICARE medical insurance coverage, education benefits, access to military commissaries and exchanges, and Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) programs.
The DoD directive is great news for legally married same-sex couples, and it should apply to you as well. However, we know from experience that some members of the National Guard have encountered resistance.
In September, Lambda Legal represented Alicia Butler and First Lt. Judith Chedville, a member of the Army National Guard who served in Iraq and Kuwait. After the DoD issued the new guidelines, Butler and Chedville, who are Texas residents, went to Camp Mabry in Austin to attempt to enroll in DEERS. Even after presenting a valid marriage license, Butler and Chedville were denied access to the registration process at Camp Mabry. They were told they would instead have to travel to a federal facility, the closest one requiring a three-hour trip.
Lambda Legal submitted a letter urging Texas military forces to abide by the DoD directive and allow not just Butler and Chedville, but all married same-sex military couples, to register for federal benefits at any military base in the state.
Finally, the Texas military forces changed course. The day before Thanksgiving, Butler successfully obtained her military spousal ID card, and she and Chedville can now feel the dignity and fairness of being treated like any other married military family. Other states, including Oklahoma, South Carolina, Florida and West Virginia, have relented after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reaffirmed the Defense Department’s directive in late October. However, National Guard units in Mississippi continue to defy the DoD directive.
If you feel you have been discriminated against because of your sexual orientation or gender identity/expression, please contact our help desk at 866-542-8336 or visit lambdalegal.org/help.
Paul Castillo is a staff attorney for Lambda Legal, the national organization that works to secure full civil rights for LGBT people.