For the second time in two weeks, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will make a major policy change within the Unites States military aimed at fairness and equality: Within days he is expected to announce a decision to extend certain benefits to same-sex spouses that were previously enjoyed only by heterosexual spouses, senior defense officials tell Fox News.
The new policies are expected push the limits of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act but won’t break any of its measures. The law forbids the federal government from recognizing same-sex unions.
The policy change, which doesn’t require congressional approval, will be the third in a serious of landmark social rights reforms Secretary Panetta has undertaken in his relatively short tenure, including the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" and lifting the combat ban on women. His decision to allow on women in combat was announced just last week.
Pentagon officials would not reveal which policies will change when it comes to same-sex marriage, but the Defense of Marriage Act prevents any changes to some of the big ones. Only if the law were to be overturned would same-sex spouses be granted health care benefits or off-post housing allowances.
However, some of the policies that could be changed include:
-- extending military ID cards to gay spouses (this, for instance, would allow a gay spouse to pick up his husband at the hospital after surgery. Currently, spouses without military ID are stopped at the gate.) I.D. cards also give access to such things as commissaries and the fitness centers.
-- access to psychological counsel
-- access to legal counsel
-- access to spousal support such as deployed spousal support groups
-- life insurance benefits
Officials say Panetta's announcement could come late this week or early next. On Thursday Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey are scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill, and on Friday the Secretary is having a retirement party at the Pentagon.
The issue came up last week during Sen. Chuck Hagel's bruising confirmation hearing to be Panetta successor when he was forced to respond to criticism about a past comment he made describing someone as "aggressively gay."
"I am fully committed to implementing the repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell' and doing everything possible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all -- all our service members and their families," Hagel said to the Senate Armed Services panel on Jan. 31.