Service member faces new obstacles upon retirement
By Mindy Cooper/The Portland Observer
Despite recent strides towards equality for same-sex couples, one local retired military service member has discovered there is still a long way to go for justice.
Sue Leavy experienced emotional ups and downs as a lesbian woman with 33 years of service in the Oregon Army National Guard.
Leavy remembers what it was like both before and after ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,’ the law that did not allow gay men and women to be their true selves while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.
The 1993 law was repealed last September after more than 13,000 service members had been discharged under terms of the Congressional action.
“For all those years I couldn’t be who I was because I was scared of the repercussions,” Leavy said.
Now as a newly retired military service member, she is finding there are other laws that still discriminate against her.
Leavy met her wife Michelle Martin six-years ago, and last year they made their vows to spend the rest of their lives with each other, while surrounded by family and friends in a church ceremony.
Inside the couple’s Vancouver home where they are raising their eight-year-old son Evan, images from their wedding rest on the wall, behind a newly framed display case of an American flag, previously hung at the White House in Washington D.C. and given to Leavy at the end of her service.
By law, the couple is in a domestic partnership officially recognized by the state of Washington. Both consider themselves to be married.
“I know I will be with her the rest of my life,” said Martin. “I feel married regardless of who recognizes it or not. Government, or not.”
The military, however, does not recognize their union in quite the same way.
“If the government wants to give us all of the rights a marriage has to offer and call it a domestic partnership, I am alright with that,” said Leavy. “But they don’t.”
Currently, efforts are underway in Congress to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which bars federal recognition of same-sex marriages. The Justice Department decided it will no longer defend DOMA in court, after the Obama Administration determined the policy was unconstitutional.
But even if DOMA is repealed, Title 10 of the U.S. Code, which pertains to the Armed Forces, defines a spouse as a person of the opposite sex and consequently prevents spouses of gay military members and veterans from receiving the same military benefits as their heterosexual counterparts.
It means that even if Sue and Michelle were married in a state that recognizes same-sex marriages, the federal government would still deny military benefits to her spouse and child, like medical care. Other benefits include retirement pay, housing assistance, family separation benefits, and burial in national cemeteries.
Last month, the Oregon Army National Guard held a retirement ceremony for Leavy and the other Oregon soldiers who were completing their honorable service.
“I got to introduce Michelle as my wife. I never thought I would see that day come in my military career,” she said.
But when it came time to honor the spouses of retired military, Michelle’s name was never called.
“Michelle was supposed to get a spousal certificate of recognition,” she said. “It was approved by the chief of staff.”
Leavy said she was hurt when someone in command said, ‘No.’ The recognition would have meant so much.
“Being there, and at least being recognized as her wife, I was okay with that, knowing the situation and being realistic,” Martin said.
In a heterosexual marriage, if one spouse passes away, the other spouse receives their retirement pay for the rest of his or her life. But because Sue and Michelle’s relationship is not considered federally recognized, Michelle will get nothing, said Leavy.
For the future, Leavy looks forward to the day her marriage and partnership will become recognized by the military for equal benefits.
She said there are others in the Army and in the civilian world who have the same barriers and wants. “It’s a shame. There is a lot of grey.”
But Leavy remains hopeful. “The bigotry is still going to be there, but as more soldiers sign up, their values are going to be different,” she said. “They don’t judge. There are some that do, but it is not like the ‘old school’.”
Both agreed that it is highly unlikely gay marriage will be legal in the military anytime soon.
“I just don’t understand why who I love should affect the entire nation,” said Martin.
“But small steps have been made,” Leavy said. “Our partners can come to where you are deployed and give you a hug and a kiss. But we still have a long way to go.”