Mission First, People Always (except if you’re gay)
Our military’s mantra of “mission first, people always” is being stymied by a law — one that’s been declared unconstitutional by three federal district courts. Arguments before the Supreme Court in March reiterated that the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is itself indefensible. Significantly, the points presented exposed the unintended, and still widely unrecognized, detrimental consequences that DOMA has on national security because of the serious harm it causes to our military and their families.
The path of progress toward full equality still has potholes. Just as prominent individuals, such as our Commander-in-Chief and more recently Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), have come to recognize the legitimacy of marriage equality, so too have growing segments of U.S. citizens at the ballot box. Meanwhile there is parallel advance of similar but still insufficient progress within our armed forces. The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” opened the way to honest and open service, but the road ahead has obstacles that impede and frustrate leaders within both the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. They are restrained from issuing policies that provide full fundamental equality and fairness.
The Pentagon has long recognized that we “recruit soldiers but retain families.” An experienced workforce is essential to the success of any enterprise, but the military is different than the private sector when it comes to people. You can’t hire a sergeant from Craigslist. Headhunters do not provide a source of combat-experienced talent when you have to replace a major, a sergeant major or a major general; you have to grow them. You can only fill the ranks and maintain the force by retaining experienced military careerists, and that’s done by retaining their primary support group — their families.
As a nation, we ask a lot of our military members. In exchange for long hours, dangerous assignments, extended and repeated deployments, we make promises to them that we will take care of their families. We provide support services, medical benefits, housing, educational opportunities and other sustaining elements. If a talented service member proves his or her mettle, we welcome their continued service and offer a retirement that includes supplementary medical care, continued access to military bases, and when the time comes, death benefits and burial services with honors. These are essential incentives to motivate experienced service members to continue to endure the rigors of military life. And a supportive family is almost always the determining factor, when the lure of a perceived easier life “on the outside” beckons.
Given this reality, the Pentagon’s emphasis on family support has grown steadily in recent decades. But now, DOMA — enacted in 1996 with only one day of hearings, no mention of any consequences on the military, and no anticipation that honest and open service would finally arrive — has become a major monkey wrench in the gears of personnel retention. Uniform treatment of soldiers in the ranks has always been the bedrock of a nation that values equality and justice. DOMA prevents our nation’s uniformed leaders from treating all its military families equally.
Although my military service spans four decades, includes two voluntary tours in Vietnam, multiple commands in combat and at levels from Captain to Colonel, my legally married same-sex spouse is treated by the federal government as a legal stranger. He cannot receive the burial options or survivor benefits he deserves or would be entitled if he were of the opposite sex. When my appendicitis prompted our trip to the local military hospital’s emergency room, my ID card gained access for us both, but once I was admitted, there was no guarantee he’d be allowed re-entry after complications prolonged my stay. The state government that granted our marriage license and welcomes our jointly filed state income tax gives total legal treatment to our relationship. However, DOMA prescribes that the federal government should not — indeed, cannot — value or recognize our relationship.
If our national security depends on retaining motivated, experienced military careerists — and few would doubt that it does — then we need to treat both them and their families equally. Repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a step in the right direction. The next step is ending DOMA.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: COL Stewart Bornhoft served in the U.S. Army from the time of his West Point graduation in 1969 until his retirement in 1995. He is married to Stephen McNabb, a former Navy Lieutenant with eight years of active duty service and his partner of 16 years. The two are plaintiffs in OutServe-SLDN’s federal court challenge to DOMA. They live in Bonita, CA.