Senator John McCain could be right when he says that the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT) has the potential to negatively impact military readiness and weaken U.S. national security. But, President Obama as Commander in Chief can ensure that our military remains highly effective and that our national security is even stronger once DADT's repeal is finally implemented.
DADT's repeal guarantees the right of patriotic gay and lesbian Americans to serve openly in the U.S. military and offers another example of how our nation strives to form a more perfect union by pursuing that which is fair and just. Unfortunately, DADT's repeal does nothing to guarantee that the families of gay and lesbian service members receive some of the most important benefits the Services provide, benefits that are guaranteed to the families of heterosexual service members.
Standing in the way of the equitable provision of benefits to gay and lesbian service members and their families is the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal law enacted in 1996 which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. DOMA creates an unequal two tier benefits structure for federal employees and their families - a first class package of benefits for opposite-sex couples and a second class package of benefits for same-sex couples. Because of DOMA, medical and dental care for a spouse, on base housing, and various travel and pay allowances for dependents are currently unavailable to service members in lawfully performed same-sex marriages and civil unions. This disparity in the quality of benefits provided by the military to the families of service members in same-sex marriages and civil unions is not only unjust, but may also have a detrimental impact on military readiness.
The provision of benefits to military families is central to our military's ability to successfully execute its mission and keep our nation secure. In fact, the Pentagon's Support Plan for Implementation of a Repeal of DADT (a companion document to the larger Report of the Comprehensive Review of the Issues Associated with a Repeal DADT) acknowledges that the support provided to families of service members is vital to mission accomplishment "particularly during times of deployment stress." The fact that service members need not worry that their spouses and children have access to medical care, have roofs over their heads, or have food to eat, makes them better war fighters and maximally effective on the battlefield.
The Pentagon Working Group that drafted the Report noted that "inequity, or perception of it, runs counter to the military ethic of fair and equal treatment" and that they were convinced that in order to "win quick and easy acceptance" for gay and lesbian service members within the military community, "repeal must be understood as an effort to achieve equal treatment for all." Ironically, the Report recommends that the Services, for the purposes of benefits, continue to treat all service members not in "federally recognized marriages" as "single service members."
Repealing DOMA anytime soon is unlikely given the recalcitrance of some lawmakers. However, removing DOMA as a barrier to equal benefits for gay and lesbian service members and their families does not require Congressional action, nor must it occur as the result of a Supreme Court decision holding DOMA unconstitutional.
So, what can be done to ensure that all service members receive the same benefits, irrespective of sexual orientation?
President Obama, recognizing that any disparity in the provision of benefits to military families undermines readiness and hinders his ability to ensure the safety of the nation can and should, choose to interpret DOMA as not applicable to the military. Pursuant to his constitutional authority as Commander in Chief, the President should issue an executive order instructing the Services, for the purposes of benefits, to treat same-sex marriages and civil unions the same as opposite-sex marriages. Given the unique context of the military and particularly, how critically important the provision of benefits to military families is to the ability of service members to effectively execute their mission, such an order is necessary. To be clear, this order would apply only to the military and not to any other federal agency.
So, in a sense, Sen. McCain may be right. Denying benefits to the families of service members in same-sex marriages and civil unions could negatively impact military readiness and consequently, weaken our nation's security. President Obama as Commander in Chief would do well to make sure this does not happen.
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