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Gay military spouses continue to face hurdles

Even after the repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell,' same-sex marriages are still not federally recognized, restricting families' access to services and benefits.

January 11, 2013|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • Ashley Broadway, left, and Army Lt. Col. Heather Mack have been a couple for 15 years, and their son, Carson, is 3. They are married, but Broadway has no access to military healthcare or benefits.
Ashley Broadway, left, and Army Lt. Col. Heather Mack have been a couple…

SANFORD, N.C. — Ashley Broadway and Army Lt. Col. Heather Mack have been a couple for 15 years. Broadway attended every one of Mack's promotion ceremonies.

The two lived together when Mack served on bases in Texas and Kansas. When Mack was deployed to South Korea, Broadway joined her there. She cared for their young son, Carson, when Mack was sent to Kuwait.

On Nov. 10, the women legally married in Washington, D.C. Broadway began a new life as a military spouse, certain that with the repeal in 2011 of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that banned gays from serving openly, she would enjoy the same rights as other spouses.

FULL COVERAGE: The battle over gay marriage 

Last month she discovered otherwise when her application to join a base club for officers' spouses at Ft. Bragg, N.C., was turned down. The group's membership director told her she was not eligible because she didn't have a military ID. Broadway believes she was rejected because she's a lesbian. "They don't recognize me as a military spouse because I'm in a same-sex marriage," she said.

Though the spouses club is independent from the military, the denial was a reminder to Broadway of the hurdles still facing same-sex couples.

The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act bans federal recognition of same-sex marriage, which means same-sex spouses don't get benefits afforded to other military wives or husbands. Broadway does not have an Army ID card or access to military healthcare, dental care, education allowances, social programs, legal services or survivor benefits.

Broadway did obtain a "caregiver card" from the Army, which allows her to shop at Ft. Bragg commissaries — but only for items used by their 3-year-old son, whom the military considers Mack's dependent. Broadway said she was confronted by a clerk when she tried to buy tampons. "Just about the most embarrassing thing that's ever happened to me," she said.

"Basically, this card considers me a nanny, the hired help," she said.

The Pentagon is conducting a "deliberative and comprehensive review" of benefits for same-sex couples, said Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, a Department of Defense spokesman. Among the possibilities under discussion is providing same-sex spouses the benefits allowed other spouses, "where legally permitted," he said.

Aaron Belkin, a political science professor who helped write the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," said denying benefits undermines military performance because "the well-being of the family directly affects the readiness of the service member."

The Pentagon should follow the lead of universities and private companies that have found ways to provide benefits to same-sex couples, said Belkin, director of the Palm Center, a research center at the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.

Broadway said she and Mack decided to marry because they believed they could live openly as a married couple in the military. Mack is expecting the couple's second child this month.

"This whole experience with the spouse group has raised much bigger issues than just me getting into a club," Broadway said.

Stephen L. Peters II, president of the American Military Partner Assn., which advocates on behalf of gay military spouses, said some benefits — including IDs — are not governed by the Defense of Marriage Act and can be revised through administrative procedures, as the State Department has done.

Last week, the Marine Corps became the first branch of service to order spouse clubs to admit same-sex spouses.

In a memo emailed to corps legal offices around the county, the Marine commandant's staff judge advocate said spouses' clubs were allowed to meet on bases only if they explicitly stated that "no person shall be discriminated against because of race, color, creed, sex, age, disability, or national origin or otherwise subjected to unlawful discrimination."

The memo said: "We would interpret a spouse's club's decision to exclude a same-sex spouse as sexual discrimination because the exclusion was based upon the spouse's sex."

The Army has no plans to address the issue now, said an Army spokesman, Maj. S. Justin Platt.

Benjamin Abel, a Ft. Bragg spokesman, said military authorities there had no direct control over private groups that operate on the base, though they must adhere to Ft. Bragg regulations and federal laws. Abel said the club was not breaking any laws because the Army's stance is that the nondiscrimination clause does not extend to sexual orientation.

The Ft. Bragg garrison commander tried to get Broadway and club officials together to "find common ground," but was unable to arrange a meeting, Abel said.

Officials of the Assn. of Bragg Officers' Spouses could not be reached for comment. Last month, the group posted a message on its website saying it intended to discuss Broadway's application at its next meeting. It gave no date.

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