WASHINGTON – Gays and lesbians in the military are running into widespread obstacles as they seek to take advantage of a new Obama administration policy designed to make it easier for same-sex couples in the armed services to get married.
The policy, announced with great fanfare at the Pentagon in mid-August, was meant to give same-sex couples up to 10 days’ special leave to get married in the 13 states that allow it – and thus equal access to low-cost health care, base shopping and other benefits available to married couples in the military.
But implementation of the policy has caused widespread confusion. Only the Marines have issued final guidelines to their ranks on the new leave. The Army and Navy put out interim directives and are still working on final versions while the Air Force has yet to issue any instructions on granting the time off.
The uncertainty illustrates the sweeping changes that the military is grappling with since the Obama administration and Congress lifted the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in 2012 and the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in June, which allowed the Pentagon to offer same-sex couples the same benefits as other military families.
The frustrations are palpable for soldiers such as Spc. Jodie Harper, an Ohio National Guard member and Army supply clerk stationed in Kuwait. When he heard about the new policy, he immediately applied for 10 days of leave to wed his longtime companion, Craig Roberts, in Washington, D.C., where gay marriage is legal.
With Harper on a nine-month deployment and Roberts in school and working two jobs, the couple are struggling to make ends meet. Once married, Roberts could register for federal benefits available to spouses of other National Guard troops, including military health care, tuition assistance and payments to help defray housing expenses.
But Harper’s battalion commander, Lt. Col. Mark Raaker, refused, saying only emergency leave was being granted. “He said if leave is granted for me to be married, then it’s not fair to heterosexuals,” Harper said.
Raaker did not respond to a request for an interview. Col. Bryan Hilferty, a spokesman for the Army in Kuwait, said: “Deployed soldiers, because they are in support of the war effort, are only authorized leave in emergencies such as the death or serious illness of an immediate family member.”
In interviews, half a dozen military members also said their applications had been rejected for widely varying reasons. In some cases, commanders said the troops could not be spared time off. In others, officers were unaware of the new policy or said the procedures had not been finalized.
In still other cases, gay and lesbian soldiers have been approved for leave to get married – while other soldiers in similar circumstances have seen their applications denied.
Asked why some soldiers have received the leave and others have not, an Army spokesman, Lt. Col. Justin Platt, said the Army would “issue additional guidance clarifying the policy in the coming weeks.”
When he announced the policy, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the goal was to “help level the playing field” for same-sex couples. They could be granted leave to travel to states that permit same-sex marriage, and thus qualify for benefits available to all married couples in the military.
The leave would be “effective immediately,” according to an Aug. 13 Pentagon memo.
The policy sought to address a conundrum for the Pentagon: Though same-sex couples can now legally get benefits under federal law, many are stationed in states or countries where gay marriage is against the law.
To rectify that, members of the military stationed more than 100 miles from a jurisdiction where they can marry were promised up to seven days off if they were in the continental United States and up to 10 days’ leave if they were overseas.
But the fine print of the policy memo gave commanders discretion about whether to approve the time off, an exception critics say has led to foot-dragging and arbitrary refusals.
Nor, Pentagon officials now say, is the leave available to troops deployed in Kuwait, Afghanistan and other bases in the Middle East that the Pentagon uses to support the war in Afghanistan.
“It does make the order a little hollow,” said Chris Rowzee, a retired Army National Guard officer and an advocate for equal benefits. “We would hope that no commander would have any discriminatory reasons for saying no. But we can’t know what’s in their hearts.”
An enlisted woman in the Air Force stationed at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi, who asked that her name not be used for fear of reprisal, said she asked for the leave earlier this month but was told authorization to grant the time off hadn’t “trickled down” yet.
She used personal leave to go to New York to get married, and her spouse successfully registered for benefits on the base after the couple returned.
Even so, she said: “Let’s say I married a man, I’m sure I wouldn’t be having any of these holdups.”
Capt. Amanda Wonder, an Air Force nurse in Texas, said her commander had not heard of the new policy when Wonder asked recently for time off to get married. Because her wedding is not scheduled until January, she hopes she will be approved before then.
In contrast, Army Spc. April Smith, who is stationed in Hawaii, said her superiors promptly approved 10 days’ leave for her to go to San Diego this fall to marry her partner.
Lt. Sheila McCabe, an Army air defense officer deployed to Kuwait, said her application to go home to get married was turned down by her battalion commander, who said he had never heard of the new leave policy. She said he told her she could take personal leave to go home.
McCabe said many people in her unit “had commented negatively” since the Pentagon announced the policy. “I actually have been told that, ‘Your situation shouldn’t make you special,’ ” she said.