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'What's right is right': Widowed lesbian pushes for equal military benefits

Photo courtesy Tracy Johnson

Donna Johnson, left, and Tracy Johnson at their home in Raeford, N.C., in 2012.

When her spouse was killed in Afghanistan, Tracy Johnson drove across town to her mother-in-law’s house — clutching her marriage certificate — so she could hear the Army’s formal notification. No one from the military came to her door.

She later watched as the American flag that cloaked the coffin of her spouse, Donna Johnson, was offered, not to her, but to Donna Johnson’s mother – the next of kin, as U.S. law stipulates. She was denied death benefits, she said, that are standard issue to heterosexual spouses of service members who die in action: free health care, tuition assistance, and monthly indemnity compensation of about $1,200.

And then there was the ring. On Valentine’s Day 2012, Tracy Johnson placed that band on her wife's finger during their marriage ceremony in Washington, D.C. Last October, as Johnson escorted her wife's body home from Dover Air Force Base, the Army asked Johnson to carry the wedding ring, designated as a “personal effect.” After arriving in Fayetteville, N.C., Johnson was obliged, by a federal statute, to deliver the ring to an Army officer who then provided it to Donna Johnson’s mother who, in turn, gave it back to Tracy Johnson. She wears it on her finger today.

“I’m not considered ‘family’ (by the military). I’m not considered a spouse and I’m damn sure not considered a widow, by definition,” said Johnson, an Army National Guard staff sergeant who served in Iraq. “We didn’t marry for any of those benefits. We married out of love.

“And I’m not standing up here, whining: ‘Woe is me.’ We were adults, big girls, and we knew what we were getting ourselves into. But it doesn’t mean I have to stand idly by and see all this happen to somebody else who’s in a same-sex marriage (in the military).”

Johnson's experiences were mandated by the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which defines marriage as the legal union of one man and one woman. The 1996 law — followed by the Department of Defense and all federal agencies — bars same-sex military spouses from benefits made available to the heterosexual spouses of service members: dental and medical insurance, discounted military housing, and military ID cards, which allow spouses to visit on-base commissaries, child-care facilities and movie theaters.

Under DOMA, military leaders were not allowed to officially acknowledge Johnson, who believes she may be the first same-sex spouse to lose a partner to combat following the 2011 repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” (DADT) — the policy that kept gays from openly serving in the armed forces. (Donna Johnson’s mother specifically asked Tracy Johnson to accompany the body home, allowing her a seat on the plane.) The only federal employee who openly referred to the dead soldier as Johnson's “wife,” was President Barack Obama, who sent Johnson a letter of condolence, she said.

On Thursday, Obama's nominee for secretary of defense, former Sen. Chuck Hagel, told congressional members during a confirmation hearing that he is "fully committed ... to doing everything possible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our service members."

Furthermore, during his inauguration address on Jan. 21, Obama spoke broadly of gay rights, saying: "Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law."

Battle for equality
For now, current law stipulates that, following the military death of a same-sex spouse, the branches first must notify the “primary next-of-kin” — in Donna Johnson’s case, her parents. If U.S. troops list a same-sex spouse on their emergency-contact forms, that spouse eventually will receive word from the military — after the blood family is told. 

“It is not like, though, it’s a day or 'x' number of weeks later. It would be almost immediately,” said Nathan Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman. “They (branch officers) would talk to primary next-of-kin first and relay the information. And then, whoever the (other designated person is), they would call them very soon thereafter. So we’re talking minutes or hours as opposed to days, weeks or months.

“DOMA is still the law we uphold. Even though that (DADT) repeal has been taken care of, there are certain benefits that are not applicable across the force,” Christensen added.

But pressure is mounting on the Pentagon and the White House to change that notification policy — and the other gaps in same-sex spousal benefits — by writing an executive order or a DOD-wide regulation.

Same-sex advocacy groups described the Jan. 25 electionof same-sex wife Ashley Broadway as Fort Bragg’s 2013 “spouse of the year” as a mandate to the military to figure out a way to override DOMA. That same day, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Obama is contemplating how benefits could be administratively extended to the spouses of gay service members, the Washington Blade reported.

'Just like all the other Army wives'
“No military spouse should have to hear second-hand that something has happened to their service member,” said Stephen Peters, president of the American Military Partner Association (AMPA), a Washington, D.C.-based support network for lesbian and gay military families. 

"No military spouse should have to watch the flag that is draped over the coffin of his or her service member folded and handed to anyone else,” added Peters, whose husband, Marine Corps Maj. Alasdair Mackay, returned safely in January from a one-year deployment to Afghanistan. “Our families live through the daily fear of worrying about having something happen to their service member while they’re deployed. But we do it without access to the same supports and benefits that other military families get. Our service members, they go to war for our country for equality, yet their families are treated as if they aren’t important, as if they are somehow second class.”

Courtesy of Stephen Peters

Marine Corps Maj. Alasdair Mackay and Stephen Peters were married in New York City during Christmas 2011 before Mackay deployed to Afghanistan.

The AMPA asserts that Tracy Johnson was the first — and only, to date — same-sex spouse to lose a military wife or husband in combat. It's possible, however, that another same-sex spouse suffered that type of tragedy before DADT was rescinded and when members were not open about their sexual orientation — even if they were legally married. 

Tracy Johnson was not listed on the emergency notification form that service members fill out, she said. Because DADT had been revoked, Donna Johnson assumed that Tracy would receive the same benefits that are granted to all military spouses — for example, being the first person to be notified by the military should a wife or husband die in combat, Johnson said. 

"Donna didn't even realize she had to put me down. She thought I was automatically extended that benefit as her wife — just like all the other Army wives who are the first ones to notified," she said.

'What's right is right'
The point is moot — even if Tracy Johnson was listed, due to DOMA she still would not have been the first person that military officials would have visited in the hours after Donna Johnson was killed. 

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on the constitutionality of DOMA.

Near Fort Bragg, N.C., Johnson holds tight to a fine philosophical line — honoring her wife and the Army while questioning the law. She describes how individual Army members privately treated her “with respect and compassion”, giving her an American flag — though not the same flag atop the coffin — during a private ceremony before Donna Johnson’s funeral. She lauds Donna Johnson’s family for supporting her, insisting that she sit with them in the front row during the memorial service.

But Donna Johnson’s mother, Sandra, is not so charitable with her summary of the events.

“Tracy’s unit supports her, her family supports her, and she was given support by the community itself. Why can’t the federal family be supportive?” Sandra Johnson asked. “I know: It’s the law. But what’s fair is fair. What’s right is right.

“The family is already going through grief. You don’t keep putting a knife in the wound and make it deeper. She’s dead, she’s gone, she can’t be brought back. So why are you treating this family, and treating Tracy, with this indignation?”

Related: Spouses club relents, says lesbian Army wife can be 'full member'