Disabled Navy Veteran in Same-Sex Marriage to Sue for Benefits

A disabled Navy veteran is suing the Department of Veterans Affairs to recognize her marriage to her longtime female partner in what is believed to be the first time a U.S. veteran has sought recognition of same-sex marriage from the department.

Carmen Cardona, 45, of Norwich, Conn., announced details of the lawsuit at a press conference in New Haven Thursday morning. The 18-year Navy veteran was filing an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims after the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) denied her and her wife spousal disability benefits last year.

"I’m proud that I served my country while in the Navy," Cardona said in a statement prior to the 11 a.m. press conference. "It is important to my wife and me that the government respect my service by acknowledging our marriage, and that we be treated equally."

Cardona, who maintained aircraft during her years of service, applied for and began receiving military-connected disability compensation from the VA for carpal tunnel syndrome, which she developed as a result of her duties following her honorable discharge in 2000. The Puerto Rican native is still able to work and subsequently became a correction officer in Connecticut; she currently works at the York Correctional Institution in Niantic.

Cardona married her longtime partner in Norwich in 2010. She later applied for spousal benefits from the VA -- to which legally married disabled veterans are entitled to -- but officials denied the application pursuant to a VA statute that prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.

"We could use the help to pay our mortgage, but this is not only about the money," Cardona's statement continued. "President Obama is right that [the Defense of Marriage Act] discriminates against gay and lesbian people. There are many other veterans out there just like me. I am standing up and asking to be treated equally in part to let others know they are not alone."

Officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs declined to comment on the ongoing litigation.

"If an appeal is filed, VA lawyers will analyze the legal arguments made by the appellant and respond appropriately in its briefs," VA spokesman Randy Noller wrote FoxNews.com in an email.

The VA benefits law, which is listed within Title 38 of the U.S. Code, indicates that for purposes of veterans benefits a "spouse" is defined as a "person of the opposite sex who is a wife or husband." The Board of Veterans Appeals relied upon this law rather than the Defense of Marriage Act in ruling that Cardona's same-sex partner could not be considered a "spouse" for benefits purposes.

Sofia Nelson, a law student intern at the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School, which is assisting Cardona in her case, said denying Cardona and her wife benefits solely because of their sexual orientation "advances no valid government policy."

Nelson said there are roughly 1 million gay and lesbian veterans in the United States.