Gay, lesbian veterans deserve equal benefits

Every year on Memorial Day, our nation gathers at cemeteries, monuments and community centers to pay respect to the men and women of our armed forces who have made the ultimate sacrifice in service to the United States. It is also a time to renew our commitment to veterans to ensure they have access to the benefits and services they have earned.

Sadly, today, veterans and their families across the country face discrimination by the very government they fought to defend. Nearly a year after a landmark Supreme Court decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and effectively extending federal benefits to all legally married couples, gay and lesbian veterans continue to face obstacles when accessing the benefits to which they are entitled.

Captain Wilkinson is a newlywed, stationed in southern Nevada and living in Las Vegas. Like many other couples, the Wilkinsons wanted to buy a home to start their married life together. Yet when he and his husband went to jointly file their application for a VA Home Loan, they were told that the VA would not recognize their marriage and could cover only 50 percent of the loan.

The VA stated in a September 2013 circular that it would review same-sex couple applications on a “case-by-case basis.” Such a capricious approach creates unnecessary confusion in the benefits system and places an unfair burden on these veterans and their families.

Members of our nation’s military do not serve in defense of the rights and freedoms of individual states, but of the United States. Military families should have access to all of their federal benefits, regardless of where they are assigned to serve or where they choose to retire.

While on active duty, gay and lesbian military families have access to the full complement of benefits available to members of the armed services under the Department of Defense. But once separated from the service, gay and lesbian veterans might find their families disqualified from continued access to similar services and benefits, ranging from housing loans to burial policies.

This is because of discriminatory language in Title 38 of the U.S. Code governing benefits under the Department of Veterans Affairs. Unique language currently exists in Title 38 that limits the definition of the term “spouse” to individuals of the opposite sex. This definition impairs the ability of the VA to provide the full complement of benefits for veterans, especially in states that do not recognize equal marriage.

Further examples of this inequality can be found throughout the United States:

Seventy-four-year-old Madelynn Taylor of Boise, Idaho, proudly served her country in the United States Navy for 6 years. Madelynn lost her spouse, Jean, in 2012, but is currently being denied the right to be interred with Jean in the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery just because they are lesbians.

Less than a year after celebrating her wedding day in Washington, D.C., Tracy Johnson received news that her wife, Army Staff Sergeant Donna Johnson, had been killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan. Tracy, like other war widows, filed for survivor benefits with the VA office in her home state of North Carolina. Because she resides in a state that does not recognize the legality of her marriage, Tracy spent more than a year fighting with the VA to access the benefits earned through her wife’s ultimate sacrifice for our country.

The VA recently notified Tracy that she would finally receive the benefits she is due, becoming the first known same-sex recipient of federal survivor benefits. While this is certainly positive news, the lack of clarity and absence of an established VA policy have serious impacts on veterans and their families. They are unsure if they can afford to purchase their first home, or be buried next to their loved one, or provide for their family when they die.

That is why I authored H.R. 2529, the Veteran Spouses Equal Treatment Act, to ensure that no veteran family will be denied access to their earned federal benefits. This responsibility should not vary from state to state, case to case, or administration to administration. All veterans and their families earn and deserve our utmost respect and appreciation.

This Memorial Day, as we honor those who have died in service to our nation, let us think of the loved ones they leave behind. Let us commit to honoring the memory of the fallen by doing as President Lincoln admonished and care for those “who shall have borne the battle” and for their families, regardless of whom they love.

Titus has represented Nevada’s 1st Congressional District since 2013. Previously, she represented the state’s 3rd Congressional District from 2009-2011. She sits on the Veterans’ Affairs, and Transportation and Infrastructure committees.