Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta announced Monday that the Pentagon will extend some benefits to gay partners of service members who live together.
“Taking care of our service members and honoring the sacrifices of all military families are two core values of this nation. Extending these benefits is an appropriate next step under current law to ensure that all service members receive equal support for what they do to protect this nation,” Mr. Panetta said.
The benefits include allowing gay domestic partners to visit their lovers in military hospitals and have notification and ceremonials rights in the event of a casualty.
In order to access those benefits, a service member and his or her partner must sign declarations attesting to the “existence of their committed relationship.”
Other benefits available to same-sex partners and their children include official identification as dependents of the service member, rights to use military stores without the service member present, and military child care and legal services.
In the memo ordering the change, Mr. Panetta said he expects the benefits would be made available as “expeditiously as possible” and a plan for implementation submitted to the defense secretary within 60 days.
However, legal limitations of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman, prevent the Pentagon from providing all benefits, such as health care or housing allowances “at this time,” Mr. Panetta said.
The decision was celebrated by same-sex partners around the country.
“It’s a great step in the right direction,” said a newly engaged female Marine captain who chose not to be identified.
“This shows the [Defense Department] is faithful to those of us who have volunteered to serve even under the current restrictions, as we are faithful to our respective branches of service and country in return.”
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, hailed the move as “another big step toward equality in the military.”
“Over the last few years, the Department of Defense has made great strides in moving our military toward equality,” he said, calling for legislation to ensure all benefits are extended for service members’ same-sex partners.
However, Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said he wants to see the Pentagon focus on Afghanistan and the looming defense budget, instead of gay issues.
“There’s enough on the plate already, and this is just another example of this [Obama] administration diverting its attention when it’s needed elsewhere,” a spokesman said.
Mr. Panetta’s decision is one of a series of controversial cultural actions taken made by the outgoing defense secretary.
Last month, he lifted the 1994 ban on women serving in ground combat units, and in September 2011, he lifted the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which banned openly gay troops from serving, after Congress repealed it as law in December 2010.
“Discrimination based on sexual orientation no longer has a place in the military,” he said.