‘Military’ Doesn’t Mistreat Same-Sex Spouses; US Law Does

Don't blame the Defense Department for following a bad law.

Robert Johnson, the fine Military & Defense Editor at Business Insider and veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, makes a common and frustrating error in his story headlined “When This Woman Died In Combat Last Week It Exposed How The Military Really Treats Same-Sex Spouses.”*

Unfortunately that routine awareness was lost to three members of the North Carolina National Guard who were killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, at about 9 a.m., as they made their way through an open air market.

The deaths passed largely unnoticed by Americans outside the military, but what caught global attention is Sgt. Donna R. Johnson’s wife and the fact the Army refuses to acknowledge her very much at all.

Gannett-owned Army Times is taking the brunt of the protest, but the Times only followed the AP’s lead, when it mentioned the other two male soldiers killed were survived by wives, while failing to mention Johnson’s wife Tracy Dice.

Readers who knew Sgt. Johnson expressed their outrage in the comments section of the story and asked why the woman, who was legally married just like the two men, couldn’t have her surviving spouse mentioned as well.

Journalism pundit Jim Romenesko wondered the same thing, after being alerted to the lapse by one of his readers, and shot off an email to AP asking what was up. Then, three days after the story went up, AP updated the piece to mention Johnson’s wife Stacy.

The Army Times has yet to follow the AP’s lead, and in the building resentment, commenters there have shed light on what’s left in the wake of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’s (DADT) repeal.

Note that, despite the headline talking about how “the military” treats spouses, the story is actually about how the Army Times (a private paper completely unaffiliated with the Defense Department or the US Government) and the AP (also a private company) wrote up the story.

Only after that intro do we get to how “the military” treats surviving same-sex spouses:

It turns out that even though a servicemember can legally marry in a state of their choice and be recognized by law, and the military as gay, the service denies same-sex spouses a long list of lucrative and fundamental privileges.

The Defense of Marriage Act enforces a long list of discrimination, picking up right where Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell left off — causing a whole different type of damage.

When the suicide bomber ripped through that Afghan market October 1 killing her wife, Tracy had to hear about it second-hand, because the Army refused to acknowledge her as the Primary Next Of Kin (PNOK). That means she found out about the death later, and that grief counseling and all the honors due to the spouse of fallen soldier are also being denied to Tracy Dice.

What that Defense of Marriage Act also means to Tracy Dice is:

  • She could never use the commissary to do the grocery shopping where food is marked just 5 percent above wholesale
  • Tracy was never covered under Johnson’s Tricare medical insurance
  • Sgt. Johnson never received the Basic Allowance for Housing stipend for dependents of same-sex marriages
  • She couldn’t go to base sponsored picnics and events
  • She couldn’t get any assistance with relocating with her wife to a new duty station, including overseas
  • Once at a new base Tracy would not have qualified for employment or education assistance
  • She did not qualify for free legal service
  • If she were ever a victim of spousal abuse and the ‘survivor’ effects of PTSD, she could not go family advocacy or spouse abuse centers
  • She will not receive any of Johnson’s survivor benefits
And perhaps most striking of all is that when the suicide bomber ripped through that Afghan market October 1 killing her wife, Tracy had to hear about it second-hand, because the Army refused to acknowledge her as the Primary Next Of Kin (PNOK). That means grief counseling and all the honors due a fallen spouse are also being denied to Tracy Dice.

Now, let’s acknowledge that this is just plain awful. At the same time, though, it’s not “the military” that created these policies. Rather, it was the United States Congress and President Bill Clinton–back in 1995 when public attitudes about these things was much different. Indeed, Clinton himself has, rightly, renounced DOMA in hindsight.

One of the most fundamental principles of our society is civilian control of the military. It would be outrageous, indeed, if our generals decided to ignore laws that they didn’t like. For as long as DOMA remains the law of the land, the United States military had damned well better follow it.

Don’t like the way the law forces our military to treat surviving same-sex spouses of troops killed in action? Then write your Congressman and Senator. But don’t blame the military for following a bad law.

*UPDATE: After a brief Twitter exchange, Johnson has changed the headline to “When This Woman Was Killed In Combat It Exposed How The Government Really Treats Same-Sex Spouses,” a much more accurate description of the problem.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Military Affairs, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. stonetools says:

    Indeed, Clinton himself has, rightly, renounced DOMA in hindsight.

    Do you know who hasn’t renounced DOMA, James? Your Republican Party , that’s who. It was they who wanted this law in the first place.

    YOU need to do some writing. My party would be just fine with repealing DOMA.

  2. Gromitt Gunn says:

    A lot of people working on DADT repeal believed that it would hasten DOMA repeal for the exact reasons noted here. It is hard to idolize soldiers as heros upholding the Constitution while simultaneously regarding as subsection of them as second-class citizens.

    Of course, we’ve done that before, and it took a while to fix… Hopefully it goes faster this time around.

  3. JKB says:

    @stonetools: My party would be just fine with repealing DOMA.

    There is an election coming up. Your party should run on the repeal, then if elected, repeal the law.

    Oh wait, your party could have repealed the law when the were in the majority in Congress and your man was in the White House. Guess the really didn’t want to?

  4. stonetools says:

    @JKB:

    Have you heard of the word ‘filibuster?”. Maybe you should Google it. You might learn something.

  5. Ken says:

    @JKB: Oh wait, your party could have repealed the law when the were in the majority in Congress and your man was in the White House. Guess the really didn’t want to?

    Misrepresenting an inability to overcome Republican obstructionism as “they did’t really want to,” while unsurprising, does no favors to your credibility in this discussion

    Nov 10, 2011
    “Today, Senate Democrats officially took sides on DOMA by voting 10-8 in the Judiciary Committee to support the misnamed “Respect for Marriage Act” that would repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The vote was along strict party lines with all 8 Republicans voting against it… Though the Democrats control the U.S. Senate, the repeal is not expected to proceed any further as they do not have the 60 votes necessary to stop a Republican filibuster.”

  6. James Joyner says:

    @stonetools: I am represented by two Democratic Senators and a Democratic Congressman.

  7. Geek, Esq. says:

    Lord High Chancellor Anthony Kennedy will decide whether this injustice is constitutional in the next two years.

  8. stonetools says:

    @James Joyner:

    Then you still need to write-to the Republic Senators who would most likely filibuster a repeal of DOMA, or to the the Republican National Committee saying that you will no longer contribute to a Republican Party that supports DOMA , and explain why.
    I’ll do my part keeping the Democrats on track, but you have a greater problem-changing the hearts and minds of a radically homophobic Party that would re-instate DADT and roll back gay rights throughout the land. Good luck with that.

  9. swbarnes2 says:

    @James Joyner:

    I am represented by two Democratic Senators and a Democratic Congressman.

    Is that a sly way of saying that you voted for the other guys? The ones far less likely to be on the correct side of this issue?

    Did you happen to vote for a Republican governor? What’s his record on equality for gay people?

  10. An Interested Party says:

    Misrepresenting an inability to overcome Republican obstructionism as “they did’t really want to,” while unsurprising, does no favors to your credibility in this discussion

    This, of course, is the same reality that undermines the bogus argument that the President isn’t bipartisan…

  11. Rafer Janders says:

    @James Joyner:

    I am represented by two Democratic Senators and a Democratic Congressman.

    And did you vote for them, or did you vote for the Repblicans who want to keep discriminating against Americans?

  12. anjin-san says:

    I am represented by two Democratic Senators and a Democratic Congressman.

    You have a bit more influence than the average voter – I hope you consider putting it to work on this issue.

  13. James Joyner says:

    @Rafer Janders: @anjin-san: I’m far from a single issue voter with this being the main thing that drives my vote. For that matter, while Obama and the Dems are better on gay issues than Republicans, Obama pretty much had to be kicked dragging and screaming to overturn DADT.

    I think I’ve written about this problem quite a bit over the years. Once same-sex marriage started gaining steam, DOMA was just unworkable even if the vast majority of states vehemently opposed it.

    Unfortunately, there are a lot of libertarian issues that neither party much cares about–some that even the Libertarian Party doesn’t much care about. Prison rape and a whole host of issues related to our criminal justice system are higher priorities to me than gay marriage rights, if I had to choose.

  14. Franklin says:

    @JKB: No response to stonetools?

  15. swbarnes2 says:

    @James Joyner:

    So the straightforward answer then is yes, given the choice of politicians before you, you would have preferred that the ones who would have supported DADT and DOMA would have been elected.

    So had you succeeded, step 1, elect Republicans, what would be the next step from there in making the Republican party stop forwarding and supporting virulently homophobic policies? You’re voting in Republicans so you can change their platform from the inside, right? So how does that work, exactly?

    You love some policies of those Republicans so much that you voted for them, even when you dislike other policies, why can’t you just tell us exactly what those awesome policies are, and explain why those policies are so awesome and important, that they supersede the necessarily of stopping the bonehead stupid policies that you and Doug cite here 3 times a week or so.

    I have my own suspicious of what the siren song is that prevents you from voting for Democrats, but it’s not pretty, so perhaps you want to supply a more palatable alternative.

    Prison rape and a whole host of issues related to our criminal justice system are higher priorities to me than gay marriage rights, if I had to choose.

    OK, so you conclude that Republican have the better policies here, and that supersedes their homophobia, and that’s why you vote for Republicans?

    So this is where you would cite those policies of Republican that you think are good ideas, and then you say “This is more important than civil rights for 10% of the population, so that’s why I vote the way I do”.

    So, what super awesome, wonderful idea policies do Republicans have in the criminal justice area that require you to vote for the homophobes?

  16. @stonetools: Objection – assumes facts not in evidence: to whit, that JKB can learn.