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Drive for equality: Some same-sex military spouses forced to travel far for promised benefits

Courtesy of Alicia Butler

Alicia Butler, left, with her spouse, Texas National Guard member Judith Chedville, and their daughter, Jordan. Under a ruling by Texas political leaders, Butler must drive an hour from her home to receive military-family benefits at a federal base, while heterosexual Guard spouses can obtain the same benefits without leaving town.

Four states are barring the same-sex spouses of National Guard members from gaining military benefits at state military installations, requiring them to instead apply for those services at federal bases — a move critics call an act of “blatant discrimination” and an open defiance of Pentagon regulations.

That blockade by political leaders in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Mississippi thrusts a sudden albeit localized detour into what had been a swift spree of civil rights gains for gay troops across the ranks. Recent changes by the Department of Defense include the unleashing of full family benefits to all legally married service member plus seven-day leaves for any gay troops and their partners who must travel to one of 13 states that allow same-sex weddings.

But in response to the apparent revolt by those four states, DOD officials maintain no benefits are being withheld from gay troops or their spouses and, further, that the legally married spouses of Guard members can obtain military identification badges — needed to enter U.S. bases and use base services — simply by driving to federal military properties.

"All federal military installations (in Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Louisiana) will issue IDs to all those who provide a valid marriage certificate from a jurisdiction that recognizes same-sex marriage,” Nathan Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman, said via email.

For Alicia Butler, the same-sex spouse of Texas National Guard member, completing that task will take a 120-mile, round-trip drive from her home in Austin to the nearest federal installations, either Randolph Air Force Base near San Antonio or Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas. With a 6-month-old child and with Butler and her National Guard spouse, Judith Chedville, each holding jobs, the couple hasn’t had time yet to make that trek, Butler said. They married in California in 2008. Chedville served in Iraq. 

“This is an ominous signal Texas is giving,” Butler said. “When I get my military ID, will they let me onto Camp Mabry (the Austin-based headquarters of the Texas Military Forces)? And if I get on the property, will I be allowed to use the services there for military spouses: the gym, the PX, and marriage-support groups? That’s all still very unclear.”

Top advocates for gay troops and their spouses are more pointed in voicing displeasure with the Pentagon’s lack of action on the matter.

“It is disappointing to simply say the (Guard) members are traveling to federal installations. First off, the DOD has no idea if that is happening and, secondly, it is blatant discrimination to force military members go travel greater distances to enroll for the same benefits their straight counterparts can easily enroll for,” said Chris Rowzee, a National Guard spouse who served a 28-year military career. She is a spokesperson for the American Military Partner Association, based in Washington, D.C. 

“That sounds a lot like the ‘separate but equal’ situation from the civil rights era,” Rowzee said. “It also ignores the culture that is created in these states — the culture that says it's acceptable to discriminate against a group of people. When these states do this, they are telling their military units, commanders and members that it is OK to treat (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) members differently, to discriminate against them. That culture is what leads to gay bashing, hate crimes, harassment and discriminatory employment practices.”

But in Oklahoma, Louisiana and Texas, National Guard officials say they simply are following their state constitutions, which recognize and define marriages as a union between a man and woman. (A spokesman for the Mississippi National Guard did not respond to an email from NBC News).

“Soldiers and airmen are not being denied any benefits; there are multiple federal locations throughout the state where they can enroll for same sex benefits,” Lt. Col. Joanne MacGregor, a spokeswoman for the Texas Army National Guard, said via email. “(We) will continue to follow state law until legal clarification is received from the Texas State attorney general.

“Our goal in the Texas Military Forces is to provide the benefits available to our soldiers and airmen under existing federal law and policy, while also adhering to applicable Texas state law,” MacGregor added. “The Texas Military Forces treats all military members and their families with dignity and respect regardless of sexual orientation.”