Foon Rhee: Gay vets fight for rights, benefits

04/28/2013 12:00 AM

10/02/2014 10:28 AM

Retired Army Col. Stewart Bornhoft wants to make sure he and his spouse, Stephen McNabb, can be buried side by side at Arlington National Cemetery. They want the same veterans health benefits as any other married couple.

The San Diego residents, partners since 2000 and married in 2008, have a combined 35 years in the military. "It would be nice if we were not treated as second-class citizens," says Bornhoft, who graduated from West Point and did two tours in Vietnam before retiring in 1995.

Tracey Cooper-Harris is seeking the same disability and death benefits for her spouse, Maggie, as if she were a man. If she dies first, Tracey wants to make sure that Maggie is the one presented the folded flag from her casket.

"I believe we fought for the rights of everyone to be treated equally," says Tracey Cooper-Harris, who served 12 years in the Army before being discharged in 2003 with the rank of sergeant, a collection of medals and, as it turns out, multiple sclerosis.

While much attention has gone to gay rights in the military, gay veterans are also fighting for equality in the courts, in Congress and the federal bureaucracy.

"Don't ask, don't tell" – which prevented gay men and women from serving openly in the military – damaged people's lives and weakened our national defense by forcing out skilled soldiers. With the policy finally ending in 2011 after 18 long years, it makes no sense to keep discriminating against gay men and women after they serve our country.

This wrong will only worsen as the ranks of gay veterans grow. According to some estimates, there are already nearly 1 million gay veterans, with some of the largest concentrations in California, San Diego and Los Angeles in particular.

On March 27, gay vets were among those closely monitoring the arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on the section of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that prevents same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits otherwise available to married couples. They are anxiously awaiting the ruling, expected in June.

Like DOMA, federal law and Department of Veterans Affairs policy define a spouse as being of the opposite gender, restricting the benefits available to same-sex couples. For instance, gay veterans who go back on active duty can't transfer their GI Bill educational benefits to their spouse. If a gay veteran dies, their spouse isn't eligible for survivor benefits or a VA home loan.

Last May, just hours after President Barack Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, the VA said it would no longer defend the constitutionality of DOMA, or the law on veterans benefits. Those laws are now being defended in court by House Republicans, who are spending $3 million of our money to do so.

The case in which Bornhoft, 66, and McNabb, 46, are among the plaintiffs was filed by OutServe-SLDN in October 2011 and is on hold until the high court decides on DOMA.

The lawsuit involving Cooper-Harris, filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center in February 2012, is proceeding in a Los Angeles courtroom. U.S. District Judge Consuelo Marshall could issue her ruling on May 13.

Tracey and Maggie Cooper-Harris say while they're cautiously optimistic, it's immensely frustrating to wait for judges to decide what their rights are. "It is out of our control but we try to make the best of what we have together," Maggie Cooper-Harris says.

They're making a life in Pasadena. Tracey Cooper-Harris, 40, works for the VA helping other vets find jobs; Maggie, 36, is an electrician's apprentice. The couple met in 2002 while playing on opposing teams in a rugby match. Soon after, Tracey was deployed for 11 months to Kyrgyzstan, Kuwait and other places, caring for military dogs. They kept in contact, and in 2008 became among the estimated 18,000 gay couples who married in California before the Proposition 8 ban passed.

In 2010, Tracey was diagnosed with MS, an incurable and disabling disease of the brain and nervous system. The VA determined it developed during her military service. She started looking into her benefits to make sure that if her condition worsened, Maggie would be taken care of.

Tracey, who is on a drug regimen to lessen her MS symptoms, put in the paperwork for additional disability payments available to spouses. She received a surprisingly quick response: "No."

They also learned that Maggie would not be eligible for compensation as a surviving spouse. They discovered that because the Northern California Veterans Cemetery near Redding receives federal funding, Maggie wasn't guaranteed a gravesite next to Tracey. They found out that because federal law does not consider Maggie the next of kin, she wouldn't necessarily receive the flag at Tracey's military funeral.

As Tracey points out, our nation has a history of treating minorities unequally. One reason for America's greatness, however, is that it does eventually make amends. Sometimes, it takes too long.

Tracey has heard stories from relatives who lived through segregation in North Carolina and saw it finally end. One day, she hopes to be able to tell her children and grandchildren that she was part of changing history, too.

Follow Foon Rhee on Twitter @foonrhee.

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