VICTORY: Texas National Guard surrenders to Pentagon in battle over gay military benefits

Alicia Butler, left, was denied an ID for access to the base where her wife, National Guard member Judith Chedville, is stationed. Butler and Chedville have a 51⁄2-month-old daughter, Jordan.

Alicia Butler, left, 1st Lt. Judith Chedville and their daughter, Jordan.

It’s official: The Texas National Guard has backed down in its dispute with the Department of Defense over the processing of benefits applications from gay military spouses.

Lambda Legal, the LGBT civil rights group, reported Wednesday that a lesbian military spouse who previously was denied benefits at a Texas National Guard base has been allowed to enroll at the same facility.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the military to begin treating gay couples equally in August. However, Texas and several other states defied the order and refused to process benefits applications from gay spouses, saying that to do so would violate the state’s bans on same-sex marriage.

On Tuesday, the Texas National Guard issued a statement saying it has resolved the dispute with the Pentagon. The details of the resolution were initially unclear, but it now appears the state has acquiesced to the Pentagon’s demands and will begin processing benefits for gay couples at all National Guard facilities.

Lambda Legal reported Wednesday that their client, Alicia Butler, was allowed to enroll for federal spousal benefits at Camp Mabry, a National Guard facility in Austin where she had previously been turned away. Butler is the wife of 1st Lt. Judith Chedville. From Lambda Legal:

“We are thrilled for Alicia and Judith who just wanted to take steps, like all military families, to access critical support networks and benefits provided to families of servicemembers,” Lambda Legal Staff Attorney Paul Castillo said. “Texas Military Forces implements a host of federal benefits programs for all National Guard units in the state and it should be no different for married same-sex couples.”

In September, Lambda Legal submitted a letter urging the commanding officer of the Texas Military Forces to abide by U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) guidelines and allow married same-sex military couples to register for federal benefits at any military base in the state. Since that first contact, Lambda Legal has engaged in continued aggressive advocacy at all levels to urge this result.

Lambda Legal represents Alicia Butler, the wife of 1st Lt. Judith Chedville, a member of the Army National Guard who served in Iraq and Kuwait. In September, after the DoD had issued guidelines on extending benefits to the same-sex spouses of military members, Butler and Chedville went to Camp Mabry in Austin to attempt to register in the federal Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS). Even after presenting a valid marriage license, Butler and Chedville were denied access to the registration process at Camp Mabry, and were told they would instead have to travel to a federal facility, the closest one requiring a three-hour trip.

“I am so pleased to have this spousal ID card and begin to access a range of benefits,” Butler said. “My wife served our country and our family needs support like all military families.”

The Washington Blade reports that the Pentagon now considers Texas to be compliant with Hagel’s order:

Based on a previous list from the National Guard Bureau of non-compliant states, the decision from Texas to acquiesce means Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, and South Carolina are currently the other states that have yet to comply.

On Nov. 7, Oklahoma announced that its state-run national guard facilities are getting out of the business of processing benefits altogether and are directing everyone — gay and straight — to federally-run installations within the state. However, Oklahoma isn’t considered a non-compliant state.

An LGBT advocate, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the purported change announced by the Texas Military Forces is a “crock” because federal funds and systems were already being used to enroll spouses in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System. The announced change, the advocate said, is a way for Texas Military Forces to save face as it acquiesced to the Pentagon’s demands.

UPDATE, Nov. 29:

A spokesperson in the Texas National Guard’s public information office confirmed Friday that same-sex couples can sign up for benefits at all facilities where opposite-sex couples could sign up for benefits previously. And Texas has not limited the number of bases where sign-ups can occur to avoid recognizing same-sex marriages. I asked specifically if there are any facilities that previously offered benefits enrollment that will not do so under the new procedure. Here’s the National Guard’s response:

“No there are not. No Real-Time Automated Personnel Identification Systems (RAPIDS)  locations will change under the new procedure. All Texas National Guard (TXNG) personnel, and their eligible dependents, can have their benefits processed at any RAPIDS location within the state.”

In other words, this is not a compromise, as some have labeled it. It is a complete and total victory for LGBT military families and the Pentagon.