WASHINGTON — Former Sen. Chuck Hagel has pledged to “move forward expeditiously” on the issue of extending partner benefits to gay service members if confirmed for the role as Defense Secretary.
During his confirmation hearing on Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Nebraska Republican reiterated his support for open service and said he would do “everything possible” to extend equal benefits to all military families.
“As I’ve discussed with many of you in our meetings, I am fully committed to implementing the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and doing everything possible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all, all our service members,” Hagel said in his opening statement.
In written responses to committee questions made public on the same day as the hearing, Hagel promised to move “expeditiously” in response to an inquiry on whether he would ensure that the completion of the report from the Pentagon benefits review group is expedited and provided to Congress.
“If confirmed, I will work closely with the Department of Defense civilian and military leadership to move forward expeditiously on this issue and will inform the appropriate Congressional committees of decisions as they are made,” Hagel writes.
The U.S. military is prohibited from offering major partner benefits — such as health and pension benefits — to gay troops because of the Defense of Marriage Act and other law, but offer benefits — military ID cards, joint duty assignments, access to family programs legal services, housing — could be extended administratively at any time under secretarial directive.
Since the time “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lifted in September 2011, Pentagon officials have consistently said they’ve been reviewing the benefits that could be extended to gay service members. However, no action has been taken.Hagel addressed this ongoing review at the Pentagon in response to a question on the status of this report and when the group is expected to produce it.
“I understand that this review is not taking the form of a report, per se, but has involved assembling detailed information on individual benefits (including whether each such benefit might be made available under current law, and options for how to do so) to support decision making by the senior civilian and military leadership of the Department, and also that those decisions are currently under active consideration,” Hagel wrote. “If confirmed, I will review the work that has been undertaken during the course of the benefits review and will work closely with the Department of Defense civilian and military leadership to move forward expeditiously on this issue.”
Allyson Robinson, executive director of the LGBT military group OutServe-SLDN, praised Hagel for promising leadership on issues important to gay service members.
“After two years of equivocation and delay by Pentagon leadership, it is gratifying to see Senator Hagel show the kind of clear, unambiguous support for our service members and their families we saw today,” Robinson said. “It is an historic day when issues critical to gay and lesbian service members and their families take center stage in a confirmation hearing for Secretary of Defense.”
Later during the hearing, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said she needs a “strong commitment” from Hagel that he’ll work to extend partner benefits for gay service members —in addition to confronting sexual assault against women, referencing reports that there are 19,000 such incidents in the military each year — and said the status quo won’t be acceptable.