Carmen Cardona, a disabled Navy veteran who is married to woman, has been fighting for three years for the spousal disability benefits she would receive if she was married to a man.
The disability benefits for her wife amount to an additional $150 per month, but Cardona said it’s not about the money.
“For my 18 years in the military, I lived in a gray zone,” Cardona said Thursday at a press conference with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal. “I love the military. I love serving my country. This is America of the free and I want to feel free.”
Based on what she described as “principle,” Cardona, with the help of the Yale Law School, filed a complaint in 2010 against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. It’s the lead case challenging the “VA statute that just like DOMA defines marriage as only between a man and a woman,” Jennifer McTiernan, a Yale Law School intern, said.
McTiernan said just like the Supreme Court found the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, she hopes the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims finds the U.S. Code under Title 38 unconstitutional.
“This is not just for me, this is for everyone,” Cardona said. “We should all have the same benefits and rights no matter who we are married to.”
If Cardona wins her lawsuit it opens the door for veterans and their same-sex spouses to receive a wide range of benefits.
McTiernan said it’s unknown how many veterans such a decision would impact or what the cost would be to the federal government, but if she had to guess “the impact of this would not be small.”
“Even within the veterans community in the Norwich area of Connecticut, Ms. Cardona knows many people who would benefit from this change,” McTiernan said.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal joined Cardona’s fight for benefits by sending letters to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and President Barack Obama.
Blumenthal said the VA told him it will continue to recognize only opposite gender couples until it hears otherwise from U.S. Attorney General’s Office or the president.
That makes it one of the few federal agencies that he’s aware of that is ignoring the president’s directive to comply following the court’s decision on the Defense of Marriage Act, Blumenthal said Thursday.
“The Veterans Administration should immediately, without any hesitation, recognize that same-sex spouses married to veterans are entitled to equal benefits,” Blumenthal said. “It is now the law of the land.”
However, General Shinseki “refuses to follow the president’s directive,” Blumenthal said. “We’re calling on General Shinseki today to immediately follow the law and do the right thing.”
The Department of Defense announced earlier this week that it would extend benefits to the same-sex spouses of uniformed service members and civilian employees no later than Sept. 3.
But Shinseki has held firm on his position explaining in a July 19 letter to Blumenthal that certain portions of the U.S. Code define spouse or surviving spouse as only a person of the opposite sex.
“Under these provisions, same-sex marriage recognized by the state would not confer spousal status for purposes of eligibility for VA benefits,” Shinseki wrote.
No court to date has struck down that provision of the U.S. Code, he wrote.
However, Blumenthal is hopeful. He described Shinseki as someone who is willing to redefine veterans’ benefits. He said Shinseki redefined Agent Orange, for example, to include benefits and claims for disability.
Blumenthal said he hopes that the attorney general will give Shinseki the assurances he needs in the next few days and “obviate the need for protracted litigation.” The president already told his cabinet chiefs to implement the new policies recognizing same-sex couples quickly after the June 26 decision was handed down by the court.