Military needs DOMA repeal

Posted: March 27, 2013

By Joe Sestak

I was always supportive of ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" for the primary reason that I wanted the "best of the best" from every demographic to ensure our military readiness.

I also appreciate how dependent our nation's security is upon "family readiness." I want a sailor's mind on his or her job, not on a problem at home. And soldiers need to be confident that family members have health and education security during their service.

For these reasons - helping to support military families and, therefore, military readiness - I supported the effort of former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to extend certain benefits to same-sex couples after "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was repealed.

Repeal DOMA

However, until the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is repealed, the peace of mind for members of our armed forces that undergirds military readiness cannot be enjoyed by all military families equitably. Under DOMA, which defines marriage for federal purposes as "between one man and one woman," more than 100 crucial benefits, from health care to survivor benefits, are denied to gay and lesbian military spouses. This means that the families of service members - the people who are legally serving our nation - are treated differently. It's wrong, it's unconstitutional, and it erodes military readiness.

No American should support the fact that one of our own, who is serving our country during wartime, cannot list his or her spouse as "next of kin" for notification in the event of injury or death. Yet that is presently the case under DOMA. It's not right that we fail to retain and recruit the very best of all segments of America's youth because same-sex spouses are denied, for example, health-care coverage in our military.

That's why I joined with 29 other military and national security leaders, military groups, and veterans' advocacy organizations in urging the Supreme Court to strike down DOMA when it hears arguments in United States v. Windsor today.

I served in the U.S. Navy for more than 30 years, and recognize how DOMA undermines families and harms military readiness. I know what is asked of those left behind during the deployment of a loved one, and have seen time and again the strength with which our military spouses, parents, and children answer that call to duty. But until we end DOMA, federal law will require the military to treat its married gay and lesbian members and their families as second-class citizens.

According to a recent study published by the Center for American Progress and OutServe-SLDN, a veterans' advocacy organization, the cost of discrimination for same-sex military couples is immense. A married same-sex couple could pay up to $5,615 more every year in out-of-pocket costs than their opposite-sex couple counterparts in order to obtain health insurance. Meanwhile, their annual housing allowance is 18 to 23 percent less than the amount a married straight military couple would receive.

Worse, DOMA hits the families of the fallen the hardest.

The law bars the military from providing survivors' benefits to same-sex spouses of soldiers who die while on active duty - or, as previously mentioned, even from designating those spouses as primary "next of kin" in the event they are wounded or killed. For wounded warriors in same-sex marriages, disability benefits are anywhere from about $560 to more than $1,884 lower each year than they are for straight military couples.

Such unequal treatment not only disadvantages service members financially, undermining their families' welfare, but it also affects our ability to recruit and retain the most talented fighting force in the world.

Voluntary service

Because the United States has a voluntary armed service, the military competes with the private sector to attract our nation's best and brightest. DOMA's denial of benefits and rights for married gay and lesbian military members threatens our ability to do just that, which is detrimental to our national security at large.

We have long known that supporting the families of service members is key for maintaining our military's long-term effectiveness and strength. However, despite the commendable actions of former Defense Secretary Panetta to extend certain benefits to same-sex military couples, DOMA continues to block the Pentagon from offering the most important benefits and protections to these families.

In the Navy, on the National Security Council, and in Congress, I took an oath to uphold our Constitution, and I believe that DOMA undermines those founding principles by discriminating against married gay and lesbian service members who are willing to sacrifice the most to protect our country.

I urge the U.S. Supreme Court to do what has taken too long: Declare the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.

Joe Sestak is a retired Navy admiral and former U.S. congressman who represented Pennsylvania's Seventh District. E-mail him at

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