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Female veteran sues U.S. over denial of full benefits

The Pasadena woman, a 12-year Army veteran who served in Iraq, says she was denied full benefits because she is married to a woman. The suit targets the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.

February 02, 2012|By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times
  • Tracey Cooper-Harris, who served in the Army for 12 years, left, and her spouse, Maggie Cooper-Harris, sit together at a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Tracey Cooper-Harris, who served in the Army for 12 years, left, and her… (Carolyn Kaster / Associated…)

A Pasadena woman who served 12 years in theU.S. Army, including tours of duty in Iraq, filed suit Wednesday against the Department of Veterans Affairs for denying her full disability benefits because she is married to a woman.

The lawsuit filed in federal court in Los Angeles by Tracey Cooper-Harris seeks a ruling that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutionally discriminates against legally married same-sex couples.

Cooper-Harris, who earned the rank of sergeant and more than 20 medals during her Army service, was honorably discharged in 2003 and married her spouse, Maggie, during the six-month period in 2008 when same-sex marriage was legal in California. The veteran who trained and provided care for military service animals, such as explosives-sniffing dogs, has suffered from post-traumatic stress disordersince returning to civilian life and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2010.

The regional VA medical center determined that Cooper-Harris' illnesses were "service-related" and she has been collecting benefits since the diagnosis but at the lesser rate paid to single veterans. She petitioned the VA for recognition of her spouse as her legal beneficiary but was denied in a letter in August in which the VA wrote that her marriage "is not valid under current federal regulations."

In her lawsuit, Cooper-Harris said she receives a $1,478 monthly disability benefit, which is $124 less than for a married veteran. Additionally, she said, in the event of her death her surviving spouse won't receive the compensation to which an opposite-sex spouse is entitled.

"There is a good likelihood that multiple sclerosis will cause my death, and I just want to make sure that whatever benefits are available that Maggie gets them if I do die," said Cooper-Harris, 38, in a telephone interview fromWashington, D.C., where her lawsuit was announced at the National Press Club.

The VA policy of recognizing only opposite-sex spouses as eligible for benefits — a practice dictated by the Defense of Marriage Act throughout the federal government —- "sends a disturbing message to gay and lesbian service members that the courage, commitment and sacrifice they make on behalf of their country are not valued as much as the service of heterosexual military veterans," said attorney Randall Lee, whose law firm is representing Cooper-Harris pro bono.

Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder, Jr. said a year ago that he believed that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional. The Obama administration has ceased defending the statute from the various lawsuits filed against it, but conservatives in the House of Representatives have directed their legal counsel to defend it in the absence of the Justice Department.

Cooper-Harris' suit is at least the 10th to challenge the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act but the first to seek a ruling on the denial of military disability benefits on the basis of sexual orientation, Lee said.

Several challenges of the statute, known by its acronym, DOMA, are making their way through federal courts in the Northeast. One suit brought by same-sex couples and surviving spouses in Massachusetts led a federal judge to strike down parts of the 14-year-old law in 2010.

Justice Department spokesman Charles S. Miller said the government had no comment on the latest lawsuit, which names both the VA and Holder as defendants.

carol.williams@latimes.com

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