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Pentagon offers limited benefits to same-sex partners of US troops

The Pentagon announced Monday that it will be extending a slew of new benefits to same-sex partners of US troops, including use of on-base shopping centers, child care, hospital visitation, and payments to partners of missing persons.

“It is a matter of fundamental equity that we provide similar benefits to all of those men and women in uniform who serve their country,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a statement released Monday.

The review that led to the new benefits came on the heels of the September 2011 repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which had prohibited openly gay people from serving in the military.

However, some benefits – including health care – are prohibited under the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which Congress approved in 1996 and which states that the federal government defines marriage as strictly between a man and a woman.

DOMA is currently the subject of several lawsuits challenging its constitutionality, one of which is expected to be heard by the US Supreme Court in March.

There are also a handful of other benefits that, while legal, would likely be unpopular within the ranks, and the Pentagon has also declined to extend them. Most notable among those benefits is housing. Senior defense officials said they would study the possibility, but make no decisions at this time.

Housing "is not off the table,” said a senior defense official, who briefed reporters at the Pentagon Monday on the condition of anonymity. The official added that he did not believe extending housing benefits to same-sex couples would “violate any of the statutes” that address DOMA.

Among troops, particularly because base housing is in limited supply, “it’s a very sensitive issue,” the same official said.

This was a key reason the Pentagon decided not to include it in the package of new benefits now available to same-sex partners. “It can be perceived as unfair – that’s a concern,” the official said.

“It’s really nice that the Pentagon reaches out to service members to get their opinions on things, but it shouldn’t be a reason to deny services,” says Greg Jacob, policy director for the Service Women’s Action Network. “Yes, base housing is scarce, but if you qualify for the housing, you should be put on the list for the housing.”

To receive the new benefits announced by the Pentagon Monday, same-sex partners will not need to be legally married by a state that permits same-sex marriage. Instead, they will be required to fill out a two-page legal form that affirms that two people “are each other’s sole domestic partner, in a committed relationship, and intend to remain so indefinitely.”

Gay rights advocacy groups hailed the decision. Although the Pentagon “did not include a number of important items that could have been granted” – including burial rights at national cemeteries and some overseas travel for spouses – one military gay rights advocacy group called the move “substantive.”

“Secretary Panetta’s decision today answers the call President Obama issued in his inaugural address to complete our nation’s journey toward equality, acknowledging the equal service and equal sacrifice of our gay and lesbian service members and their families,” said Allyson Robinson, an Army veteran and executive director of OutServe-SLDN (Servicemembers Legal Defense Network), in a statement.

Pentagon officials say they will continue to review benefits, including housing and burial in the nation’s military cemeteries.

For the newest benefits, the services are expected to provide an implementation plan to the Pentagon within the next 60 days.

There are roughly 5,600 same-sex partners among active duty troops, 3,400 among National Guard and Reserve forces, and some 8,000 among retirees, according to Defense Departmentestimates.

The rules are expected to begin going into effect between August and October of this year.

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