The death certificate read “single,” even though the fallen soldier was married.
When it came time to inform the next of kin, casualty officers did not go to the widow’s door in North Carolina, nor did she receive the flag that draped the casket of her beloved, a 29-year-old National Guard member killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan.
Because federal law defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman, the military did not recognize the relationship of Army Sgt. Donna R. Johnson and Tracy Dice Johnson at all, rendering Johnson ineligible for the most basic survivor benefits, from return of the wedding ring recovered from the body to a monthly indemnity payment of $1,215.
“You cannot imagine the pain, to actually be shut out,” said Dice Johnson, an Army staff sergeant who survived five bomb explosions during a 15-month tour in Iraq. “Not only is one of their soldiers being disrespected. Two of them are being disrespected.”
As the Supreme Court prepares to consider the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, gay marriage advocates are focusing attention on the way they say the law dishonors gay service members and their spouses, who are denied survivor payments, plots in veterans’ cemeteries, base housing and a host of other benefits available to opposite-sex military couples for generations.
If the high court strikes down DOMA, the ruling could bring sweeping changes to the way the military treats widows and widowers such as Dice Johnson, the first person to lose a same-sex spouse to war since “don’t ask, don’t tell” was lifted in 2011.
Although they can now serve openly, gay and lesbian service members “are anything but equal, and it’s the DOMA that is really what’s standing in the way,” said Allyson Robinson, a West Point graduate who serves as executive director of OutServe-SLDN, an advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender service members and veterans that filed a brief urging the court to strike down the law.
On the other side stands the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, an association of faith groups that screen chaplains for military service. It has asked justices to uphold the DOMA on the grounds that pastors and service members from religions that oppose homosexuality would find their voices silenced and opportunities for advancement limited.
“The military has no tolerance for racists, so service members who are openly racist are not service members for long,” the alliance’s brief states. “And if the traditional religious views on marriage and family become the constitutional equivalent of racism, the many service members whose traditional religious beliefs shape their lives will be forced out of the military.”
Retired Col. Ron Crews, the group’s executive director, said Congress could find ways to honor war widows such as Dice Johnson without striking down DOMA, which he said had served as “a wall” protecting personnel with strong religious beliefs since the ban on openly gay service members was eliminated.
Before he left office in February, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordered the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines to extend to same-sex partners of military personnel certain benefits not precluded by the DOMA, including ID cards giving them access to on-base services and visitation rights at military hospitals. Some of those measures would have eased Dice Johnson’s grief if they had been in place earlier.
In the future, for example, same-sex survivors of service members will be eligible to receive a deceased partner’s personal effects and to be presented with the folded flag at the funeral. But many of the acknowledgements available to military spouses in opposite-sex marriages remain out of reach.
The widows of the two men who lost their lives alongside Johnson heard the news from an Army casualty officer. But Dice Johnson, 43, found out from her sister-in-law. Johnson could not list her as primary next-of-kin because the government did not recognize the marriage.
Former Rep. Joe Sestak, a retired Navy admiral who was the highest-ranking officer ever elected to Congress, said such inequities have implications for national security. Many financial protections and support services are offered to military families not just out of gratitude, but so service members can focus on their jobs during dangerous deployments, Sestak said.
“When you step back and all of a sudden realize that a law would actually prevent, today, the spouse of somebody in our military (being) notified first that that solider or that sailor has been harmed or killed … you sit back there and say, ‘What’s going on?’ ” he said.
Dice Johnson does not fault the Army. From the casualty officer to National Guard commanders, everyone did “the best they could,” she said. In some instances, she was even surprised at her support. The condolence letter she received from President Barack Obama acknowledged Johnson as her wife.
If the DOMA is overturned before the one-year anniversary of the attack, Dice Johnson may become eligible for monthly survivor benefits, guaranteed health insurance and other financial compensation.
“My biggest thing, honestly, is to get her death certificate changed to ‘married,’ “ she said. “That will be my victory.”