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Freedom to serve, but no rights for gay couples in the military

Navy Chaplain Kay Reeb of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America officiates the civil union ceremony of Air Force Tech. Sgt. Erwynn Umali, right, and his partner Will Behrens. (AP file photo)

Early in the morning on Election Day, tens of thousands of military personnel received an email urging them to vote.

“You serve to help defend the right to vote for all of us, so please exercise it yourself,” the email read. It was sent to members of an online resource called S1NET, a forum only accessible to those in the U.S. Army.

The email went on to outline their current policy regarding same-sex marriage.

“Although certain states may recognize same-sex unions, and some service members may take or have taken advantage of the state laws that allow these unions, at this time, SSM(s), SVO(s), and VO(s) may not make any changes to a sponsor record utilizing the documentation from one of these unions.”

In short; gay marriage still means nothing in the military.

“It doesn’t matter whether you live or die and happen to be gay in the military, you are still going to be sort of disenfranchised,” said Retired Col. Grethe Cammermeyer. “Your family is disenfranchised. They can’t get an ID card to go on a military base. They can’t get healthcare.”

Cammermeyer served 31 years in the military, “not without turmoil,” she said.

She fought to keep her career after coming out as a lesbian, and then spent 24 years fighting for the ultimate repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) in 2011.

“To have young people come up to me and say, ‘Thank you colonel. Because of your efforts, I no longer have to choose between the military that I love and the partner that I love,’ that is very humbling – to hear that it has made a difference.”

Retired, she now lives with her longtime partner on Whidbey Island. The two plan to wed on Dec. 9; the first day same-sex couples can tie the knot under Washington state’s marriage equality bill.

Still, the federal government’s Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, will prevent their union from being recognized by the military.

“It is like there is nothing that is there for you, except you can now live and die in the service of the country and do that as a recognized gay person,” she said. “My partner of 24 years, soon-to-be spouse, has no protection from the federal government from my retirements if I should die before her.”

Cammermeyer is hopeful that the repeal of DADT has encouraged gay and lesbian service members to speak out about unfair treatment under the law.

“What they can be is vocal to their commanders about what their significant other can’t do because of the restrictions that are there,” she said. “That way there is pressure from within the military, as well as outside, to get Congress to act.”

DOMA defines marriage as the union between one man and one woman; therefore benefits cannot be extended to spouses of the same sex.

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