Karen Ocamb

5 Things to Listen for at DOD's LGBT Pride Event Today

Filed By Karen Ocamb | June 26, 2012 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: Department of Defense, DOD, Jeh Johnson, Leon Panetta, LGB servicemembers, Mike Mullen, pride event, relationship recognition

Truthfully, some LGBT people never thought we'd hear the Secretary of Defense - as Leon Panetta did on June 15 - thank gay and lesbian service members and LGBT civilians for their service or pledge to remove "as many barriers as possible" to equality (video):

Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan and her wife, Karen at the OutServe conference last year (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

As Secretary of Defense, I am very proud of how we implemented repeal. Going forward, I remain committed to removing as many barriers as possible to make America's military a model of equal opportunity, to ensure all who are qualified can serve in America's military, and to give every man and woman in uniform the opportunity to rise to their highest potential.

Diversity is one of our greatest strengths. During Pride month — and every month — let us celebrate our rich diversity and renew our enduring commitment to equality for all.

Today the DOD will host the first ever LGBT Pride Month event in the Pentagon Auditorium, with Defense Department General Counsel Jeh Johnson as the keynote speaker. A panel discussion entitled "The Value of Open Service and Diversity" will follow.

But while the LGBT community is appreciative of the long overdue recognition of the patriotism and sacrifice lesbian gay and bisexual service members - we are also increasingly impatient with the lack of urgency in being granted full rights of first class citizenship such as the same family benefits afforded all military members. But with this rate of foot-dragging, Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan could die and the child she is raising with her wife, Karen, may not be allowed on base to say goodbye. So much for the Army's promise: “we leave no solider behind.”

Even Fox News recognizes the inequalities. “The department is carefully and deliberately reviewing the benefits from a policy, fiscal, legal and feasibility perspective,” Eileen Lainez, a Pentagon spokeswoman, told Fox News Thursday, June 14, the day before Panetta's video was released.

DOD General Counsel Jeh Johnson (DoD photo by Darrell Hudson, U.S. Army)

June 15 was also the day the White House celebrated LGBT Pride Month, during which President Obama said, "After decades of inaction and indifference, you have every reason and right to push, loudly and forcefully, for equality.”

Agreed. So here are five issues pro-equality participants at the DOD Pride event might want to listen and watch for today.

1. An authentic commitment to quickly provide equal family benefits.

Consider this from attorney Tom Carpenter, longtime boardmember of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, who notes that it took the Pentagon longer to implement repeal of DADT than "to execute the withdrawal from Iraq and plan the reduction in forces in Afghanistan:"

After nine months of study, the DoD's Comprehensive Review Working Group's (CRWG) 266-page report was published on November 30th, 2010 (compared to the two-page memorandum used by the British to almost instantaneously change their personnel policy). It discussed in great detail the various family benefits for service members and admitted the DoD had the ability to grant many of them to gay couples without running afoul of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The report then concluded, "we recommend, for the time being, that the Department of Defense and the Services not revise their regulations to specifically add same-sex committed relationships to the definition of "dependent," "family member," or other similar term, for purposes of benefits eligibility. However, we also recommend that the Department of Defense revisit this issue after repeal, as part of the post-repeal follow-on review...."

"This conclusion was surprising because it was clear during a meeting I participated in with the CRWG in May of 2010, that the military leadership understood they would face problems with unit morale and discipline if repeal of DADT created two classes of service members. Unfortunately, that is precisely what has occurred with more and more straight service members seeing the abject inequality of their comrades."

It has been more than a year and a half since the report recommended revisiting the issue of family benefits for GLB service members but the Pentagon has failed to provide any additional benefits. Letters written by Servicemembers Legal Defense Network to Secretary Panetta asking what progress has been made regarding these benefits, which could be easily granted by changes in the DoD regulations, remain unanswered.

What's so galling and utterly indecent about this inexcusable lassitude is that either Panetta or Obama could correct this injustice with a stroke of the pen. Given his belief that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional and his directive to not defend the law in federal court, arguably President Obama could be pro-active and direct Panetta to implement the same and equal family benefits to all members of the military. The order would in essence make the current policy uniform.

This is no small matter. Take the situation of Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan and her wife, Karen. Charlie, a National Guard officer, is battling for benefits for her family, while also fight for the repeal of DOMA in Congress and the courts - while also fighting incurable stage IV breast cancer.

Today, Obama could order Panetta to change the regulations to enable Charlie and Karen to receive some of the benefits she is entitled to NOW. These benefits include an identification card allowing Karen to enter a military installation to take their child to the hospital, base housing, exchange and commissary privileges, deployment support, marriage and family counseling, relocation, financial management, and free legal assistance. Things straight soldiers take for granted as coming with the job.

Will Jeh Johnson say anything about Charlie Morgan and those like her who NEED those family benefits NOW?

2. Will the DOD continue to stand up for the religious freedom of all military chaplains?

On Saturday, June 23, Navy Chaplain Kay Reeb of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America officiated at the wedding of Air Force Sgt. Erwynn Umali and Will Behrens on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.

Navy Chaplain Kay Reeb of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America officiated at the wedding of Air Force Sgt. Erwynn Umali and Will Behrens on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. (Photo courtesy Eric Alva via Facebook)

This is a very big deal, an historic event, really, considering that for the past twenty years the ultra-conservative Religious Right has dictated religious policy in the military, perhaps looking to recruit from the latest batch of white supremacists. But while the Pentagon was working on and reviewing and getting a buy-in on DADT repeal, another force was at work: LGBT affirming chaplains who believe they and all service members have the right to practice their religious liberty at an equal policy level with the Christian Right.

Here's the backstory from Tom Carpenter:

On April 13, 2011, the Chief of the Navy Chaplains, RADM Mark Tidd, took a bold step advancing the religious rights of LGB sailors and Marines. He sent a memorandum to his fellow Navy chaplains allowing those whose faith group permitted them to celebrate same-sex unions, in states where it is legal to do so, using base chapels.

Within a month, the Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, received a letter signed by 63 conservative members of Congress, objecting to chaplains officiating at such ceremonies. Unable to resist this political pressure, Admiral Tidd was forced to reverse course and suspend this policy.

On September 30, 2011, just 10 days after repeal of DADT was finally implemented, the civilian leadership of the DoD finally saw the light, and again reversed course. Recognizing the Constitution's First Amendment right of the free exercise of religion also applied to gay service members, the DoD not only reinstating Adm. Tidd's enlightened policy for the Navy and Marine Corps but went much further, making it applicable to all the Armed Services.

Just last month, a courageous Army chaplain performed a same-sex ceremony for a couple at the installation Chapel at Fort Polk, Louisiana. This exercise of religious freedom brought a firestorm of criticism by conservative Republican congressmen, as well as many right-wing groups. While chaplains continue to carry out their duty to "Perform or Provide" religious services and counseling, the administration remains silent on the significant issue of family benefits.

What will Jeh Johnson say about the right of all chaplains to act in accordance with their beliefs?

3. As the new documentary "The Invisible War" depicts - there were 19,000 violent sexual assaults committed in 2010. These are assaults against both men and women - though the men come forward more infrequently.

DOD Sec. Leon Panetta testifying on sexual assault on Nov. 2011 (Photo Air Force Times)

The New York Times reported last March:

The problem has outlasted decades of Pentagon studies and task forces and repeated vows of "zero tolerance." Mr. Panetta has promised that this time will be different. In February, he told Congress, "We have got to get our command structure to be a lot more sensitive about these issues, to recognize sexual assault when it takes place and to act on it, not to simply ignore it."

Mr. Panetta has announced welcome reforms, including more money for training military investigators and judge advocates to prosecute sexual assault cases, more opportunity for victims to report crimes and request transfers and a system to collect and monitor assault cases. The director of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, or SAPRO, Maj. Gen. Mary Kay Hertog of the Air Force, has pledged to enact the reforms and provide more outreach and support for victims.

There is a lot of tough work ahead. A continuing poster campaign by SAPRO, which had started before General Hertog took over, is disturbingly clueless. It carries the tag line, "Ask Her When She's Sober," as if predation could be combated through a grotesque parody of an etiquette poster.

The Defense Department's record of prosecuting assault cases is dismal. In 2010, fewer than 21 percent of cases went to trial, for a number of reasons, including decisions by commanding officers not to prosecute or to impose nonjudicial or administrative punishments. About 6 percent of the accused were discharged or allowed to "resign in lieu of court-martial" -- quit their jobs. Only about half the cases prosecuted resulted in convictions.

High ranking officers who get caught committing sexual assault or who turn a blind eye when they know assaults are occurring might only be discharged and get a slap on the wrist, while an ordinary soldier, sailor or civilian could be treated more severely under the law. How can the Pentagon expect to actually change this culture if there is no equality in the severity of consequences?

What will Jeh Johnson say about specific plans to change the culture since no one's buying "zero tolerance" any more?

Admiral Mike Mullen listening to my question about DADT-related PTSD (Photo screen grab of video)

4. When Admiral Mike Mullen came to USC to talk about how the community must become more involved in welcoming home returning vets, we asked him if the military would start including the emotional and psychological impact of living under DADT as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) so lesbian and gay service members could start getting help for having served in silence - including in the battlefield - for so long. He said he would look into that. Nothing's happened since. Does it not occur to the military that PTSD from DADT could lead to suicide, too?

5. This is clear and simple: when is the DOD going to construct a plan and path to enable our trans service members to also serve openly and receive all the benefits to which they, too, are entitled?

By all accounts, DOD General Counsel Jeh Johnson is a good and decent man. While we appreciate the platitudes, actions speak much louder than words.. Hopefully, at the very least, on Tuesday he will announce the Pentagon is taking action to change DOD regulations giving Charlie Morgan and her family, as well as thousands of other families, some of the benefits they have earned by their service to our country.

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