Twenty-one years after presidential candidate Bill Clinton vowed to be the first commander in chief to allow homosexuals to serve their country openly -- and had to compromise on that promise -- gay and lesbian members serve openly and have now won full equality in military benefits.
The final hurdle was defeat of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which had defined marriage for the purpose of federal benefits as solely between a man and woman. The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday, in a 5-4 decision, struck down DOMA as unconstitutional.
Writing for the court majority in U.S. v Windsor, Justice Anthony Kennedy said DOMA "violates basic due process and equal protection principles" and deviates "from the tradition of recognizing and accepting state definitions of marriage" to "deprive same-sex couples of the benefits and responsibilities that come with federal recognition of their marriages."
Three of four dissenting justices wrote separate opinions including Chief Justice John Roberts who said Congress acted constitutionally in passing DOMA in the interest of uniformity and stability in defining marriage. He also said no part of the majority opinion stops states from continuing to define marriage, as most still do, as only between a man and a woman.
After the ruling, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel issued a statement that it changed the "law of the land" and the Department of Defense "intends to make the same benefits available to all military spouses -- regardless of sexual orientation -- as soon as possible."
The key now to gaining full benefits is marriage in a state where same-sex nuptials are legal, and changes to the military identification card process, to recognize same-sex marriages and allow these spouses enrollment in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS)
"The Department will immediately begin to update the identification card issuance infrastructure and update the applicable implementing guidance," said a statement from Defense manpower officials. "We estimate that this process will take about 6-12 weeks."
Ten states and the District of Columbia currently allow gay marriage: Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and Washington. Delaware will do so starting July 1 and Minnesota Aug.1. California will follow because, in a separate ruling also handed down June 26, the high court let stand a lower court decision striking that state's "Proposition 8" ban gay marriages.
Military gays and lesbians who delayed marriage while DOMA was in effect now have an incentive to tie knots: a generous benefits package. Stephen L. Peters, president of American Military Partner Association, said he expects many trips across state lines in the weeks ahead as partners become spouses to qualify for TRICARE, raise Basic Allowance for Housing and more.
Peters said he has no data on the number of gays and lesbians in the military but demographers say they are four percent of the U.S. population.
The 11th Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation last year found military personnel more likely to marry than civilian peers in part because of the benefits. The study noted, for example, that five percent of 20-year-old civilians were married versus 15 to 20 percent of 20-year-old Marines.
Peters said he would expect gay and lesbian members also to marry at higher rates than civilian counterparts, for the same reason.
Hagel said he doesn't know yet know how much it will cost to give married gay and lesbians full military benefits. "But make no mistake," he added, "that decision will be implemented in every way. As it should be."
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said, "The Joint Chiefs have been very clear that we will follow the law of the land, and the law of the land has just changed. And we will now, as quickly as possible, assess what that means. I'm sure there will be some cost."
Recognizing same-sex spouses will raise the benefit tab for the military and veterans. But the Congressional Budget Office concluded in 2004 that the net effect would be to lower federal spending, by about $1 billion a year, because married couples pay more taxes, which offset benefit gains. CBO, however, assumed not only that same-sex marriages were recognized by the federal government but legalized in all 50 states.
Dempsey said folks have the wrong impression if they think the military "will find a way to fight this…We actually have done what I think is a very credible job of ensuring as much equality as we could possibly provide to the men and women who serve this country. And we will do what we can for them within the limits of the law."
In a day of celebration for his association members, Peters said he's a little concerned that up to 12 weeks could be needed to begin full benefits. Officials still don't know whether any benefits, like family separation allowance, will be provided retroactively, perhaps back to the date of the court decision for married members, or to the date of marriage since the court decision or from the date that implementing regulations take effect.
But Peters noted that more and more states are moving toward "marriage equality" in large part because of the way the military, such a respected institution, has handled repeal of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell law.
"Repeal had a dramatic impact on public opinion of gay marriage because service members are looked up to in society," Peters said.
Gay and lesbian spouses of federal civilian employees also gain access to full federal benefits. Defense officials said these employees should look to the Office of Personnel Management for guidance on full benefits. But same-sex spouses of Defense civilians who are eligible for ID card-related military benefits will be getting spouse ID cards at the same time they are made available to same-sex spouses of military members.