By Win Vitkowsky
1:45 PM EDT, October 26, 2011
Despite recent steps by the federal government to open the armed forces to gays and lesbians, veterans with same-sex spouses cannot receive benefits for their husbands and wives.
That disparity is the subject of a lawsuit filed in Washington D.C.'s Court of Appeals for Veteran's Claims.
Carmen Cardona, who is now a state Department of Corrections officer at Niantic, says she is entitled to an extra $120 a month for her and her wife. The U.S. Navy and the Veterans Affairs administration says it can't legally recognize her marriage because of the Defense of Marriage Act, and because Veterans Affairs regulations define a "spouse" as someone who is the opposite sex.
For Cardona, who stayed in the closet for the 12 years she served in the Navy, it was a shock to find the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" did not also allow her to get benefits for her wife.
"I was really surprised, because they got rid of 'don't ask, don't tell,'" Cardona says. "I grew up with that in the military. But when that happened, I thought it would be no problem for me to get benefits for my wife. I was really surprised and upset at the same time. Now that we have the right to serve openly, we should have the right to get the same benefits."
Randy Noller, a spokesman for Veteran's Affairs, says he cannot comment on the lawsuit. He did, however, say VA lawyers are analyzing Cardona's argument and responding to it in briefs.
The letter Cardona received denying her benefits sheds a little more light on the case:
"The Board acknowledges and is sympathetic to the arguments advanced by the Veteran, especially in light of her honorable service. The Board also fully recognizes the sensitivity of the subject of same-sex marriage, as well as the popularity and political nature of this issue. However, VA law governing the definition of 'spouse' is clear and specific, and the Board is bound by that law."
Jack Mordente is director of veterans services at Southern Connecticut State University, says it appears as though the Veteran's Affairs board has not caught up to the new reality of post-"don't ask, don't tell" military culture.
"In my experience, this is a first," Mordente says. "It's unprecedented, they just rescinded 'don't ask, don't tell,' and again, from what I know, the VA, with its regulations, are not set up to deal with claims like this. It's happening as we speak."
Cardona left the Navy in 2000 on an honorable discharge, but started to experience difficulties resulting from carpel tunnel syndrome as far back as 1994. When she got married in May 2010, she applied for benefits available to all heterosexual married couples. Cardona estimates those benefits are worth about $120 a month.
Cardona is represented by students at the Yale Veterans Legal Services Clinic. This lawsuit is substantially different from the work they normally do. The clinic has never represented a gay or lesbian veteran applying for benefits. The clinic has also never made a constitutional challenge to change the Veteran's Affairs policy, says second year law student Sofia Nelson.
"Ms. Cardona and her wife have been denied benefits solely because of their sexual orientation," Nelson says. "Which is a violation of the equal protection guarantee of the Constitution."
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