U.S. military makes history on same-sex benefits

Sometimes, as a reporter, you have to take a big step back while covering a certain issue to realize how much change you have witnessed on a story. That certainly is true when it comes to how the military has dealt with gays and lesbians.

When I started reporting in Washington, D.C. during the Reagan Administration, there was some attention on "gays in the military" - but there was little progress for activists who wanted the Pentagon to allow servicemembers to engage openly in same-sex relationships.

In the first Bush Administration, gay and lesbian activists came to Capitol Hill for "kiss-ins" in the offices of various influential lawmakers, as activists papered Capitol Hill with flyers calling for change in the military.

Those same xeroxed flyers often had a photo on them of Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams, trying to make the point that gays were already serving in the Pentagon, even if it was not officially allowed.

It was a hot topic that made lawmakers in both parties uneasy, as they searched for some kind of compromise.

By the early 1990's, the military instituted the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which infuriated the gay and lesbian community, but won political acceptance in both parties, as Congress continued to debate whether openly-gay servicemembers would harm "unit cohesion" and more.

I remember one hearing about the issue where Sen. Sam Nunn (D-GA) went toe-to-toe with Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) about the issue - neither man giving any ground as Nunn expressed concerns about the impact of allowing openly gay soldiers, while Kerry said they were already there and it was time to let them serve without hiding their private lives.

But the country wasn't yet ready for that, and Don't Ask, Don't Tell stayed in place into the Obama Administration.

But during that time, the country changed its mind; the military would soon follow.

It was only three years ago that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was repealed by the Congress - it was a controversial move for many lawmakers, even as polls showed wide support for the move.

Then, in the wake of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, it became apparent that the Pentagon would soon move to extend benefits to same-sex couples who were legally married, something that was almost impossible to imagine 25 years ago.

And when that policy was finally issued by the Pentagon on Wednesday, it came in the form of a written press release.

Just a written statement. Just another scrap of paper from the military, with no hint of the major and historic change it contained, accompanied by the rather bland title of "DOD Announces Same-Sex Spouse Benefits" on the news release.

"Today, the Department of Defense announced its plan to extend benefits to same-sex spouses of uniformed service members and Department of Defense civilian employees," the statement read.

Here is the full statement:

Today, the Department of Defense announced its plan to extend benefits to same-sex spouses of uniformed service members and Department of Defense civilian employees.

After a review of the department's benefit policies following the Supreme Court's ruling that Section Three of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional, and in consultation with the Department of Justice and other executive branch agencies, the Defense Department will make spousal and family benefits available no later than Sept. 3, 2013, regardless of sexual orientation, as long as service member-sponsors provide a valid marriage certificate.

The Department of Defense remains committed to ensuring that all men and women who serve in the U.S. military, and their families, are treated fairly and equally as the law directs.

Entitlements such as TRICARE enrollment, basic allowance for housing (BAH) and family separation allowance are retroactive to the date of the Supreme Court's decision.  Any claims to entitlements before that date will not be granted.  For those members married after June 26, 2013, entitlements begin at the date of marriage.

We recognize that same-sex military couples who are not stationed in a jurisdiction that permits same-sex marriage would have to travel to another jurisdiction to marry.  That is why the department will implement policies to allow military personnel in such a relationship non-chargeable leave for the purpose of travelling to a jurisdiction where such a marriage may occur.  This will provide accelerated access to the full range of benefits offered to married military couples throughout the department, and help level the playing field between opposite-sex and same-sex couples seeking to be married.

For civilian benefits administered government-wide to federal employees, the Department of Defense will follow the Office of Personnel Management and the Department of Labor's guidance to ensure that the same benefits currently available to heterosexual spouses are also available to legally married same-sex spouses.

Read the implementation memo from Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel online as well as further guidance on extending benefits to same-sex spouses of military members from Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Jessica Wright.

Full benefits for same-sex couples will start the day after Labor Day.

Maybe the most interesting change is that the Pentagon is going to give special leave to service members and/or civilian defense workers who want to officially be married, but don't live near a state that sanctions same-sex marriage.

From now on, the military will grant special leave to those who have to travel more than 100 miles to get to a jurisdiction that allows same-sex marriage, in order to be legally married.

As a reporter, one could hardly have imagined writing that sentence 25 years ago - but, as they say, times have changed.

And supporters of the change argue that the U.S. military doesn't seem to have missed a beat.