By Carlo Muñoz - 02/11/13 07:00 PM EST
The department's personnel and legal divisions are working "a very ambitious schedule" to meet the deadline set in Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's memorandum extending certain benefits to same-sex spouses released on Monday, according to one Pentagon official.
"Our work must now expand to changing our policies and practices to ensure fairness and equal treatment" within the military, according to Panetta.
House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) lauded the department's decision, saying in a statement on Monday that "no individual should be deprived of the benefits they have earned simply because of who they have married."
But certain benefits, such as medical coverage, base housing and "command sponsorship" for gay and lesbian spouses during overseas deployments, will remain off-limits to same-sex couples under Panetta's order, the Pentagon official said.
The benefit changes will affect roughly 5,600 active duty and 3,400 Guard and Reserve members and their partners, as well as 8,000 retired military personnel, the official said.
Members of the Joint Benefit Review Board, which included representatives from the services, Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Pentagon, recommended the benefit changes to Panetta prior to Monday's directive.
The board opted to exclude medical and housing benefits to same-sex couples in the military due to concerns over the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The 1996 law defines marriage as the union of one man and woman for federal purposes, including insurance and Social Security benefits and tax breaks.
The military's use of the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman, from DOMA, for those benefits left no room for Pentagon personnel officials to include same-sex spouses under those rules, a second DOD official explained.
Short of creating an entirely separate category for gay and lesbian spouses in the military's benefits regulations, there was no way to extend health and housing benefits to those couples, according to the second official.
Should the Pentagon opt to create a new category for same-sex spouses, it would "violate the spirit" of DOMA, the first DOD official said.
On housing specifically, the limited number of on-base housing units available military couples could also cause unnecessary friction within the military ranks, should heterosexual and homosexual couples be forced to vie for those limited slots, the second official added.
That issue did factor into the recommendations made by the benefits board to Panetta, the second official noted.
However, the exclusion of health, housing and even military burial benefits are not completely off the table, the first DOD official added.
Panetta's decision to exclude those benefits from Monday's directive was intended as a delay, to give the department more time to evaluate how best to integrate those benefits into the military personnel system.
"It is not off the table ... for consideration," the first DOD official said. "He did not reject them, but he did not approve them."
That said, the official denied that the DOD was delaying on weighing in on those benefits until after a Supreme Court hearing on the constitutionality of DOMA set for next month.
Regardless of that pending decision, the benefits approved in Monday's memorandum will be ready and available for same-sex military couples no later than August, the official said.
Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel, who is to replace Panetta at DOD, was also asked about the issue during his confirmation hearing last week, where he pledged to do “everything possible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our service members.”