The federal law known as the Defense of Marriage Act still prohibits many of the major spousal benefits, like housing and health care, from being extended to same-sex couples. But Panetta's announcement still had advocates for gay service members cheering.
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Panetta's announcement lists a suite of benefits now available to same-sex military couples, including child care, dependent ID cards, shopping privileges on military bases, family support services, and emergency leave, among others.
Lori Hensic is director of educational affairs with the American Military Partners Association, whose mission is to support and connect same-sex partners of military service members. Partner to a Marine helicopter pilot, she's based in San Diego, at Camp Pendleton.
Hensic says she was "elated" to hear the news. She says the announcement gives important symbolic as well as practical support to same-sex military families.
"But in addition to the overall message to not only the public, but our military members, that we value their service, and we don't think that their service is any different or any lesser than a heterosexual service member's," she said.
Now, the partner of a service member will be allowed to access those services for the couple's children. Hensic says this benefit and others help to reduce the stress of military service on families.
But there are major benefits that are still out of reach for same-sex partners. They include housing, health insurance and survivor's benefits.
That's because of the Defense of Marriage Act, also known as DOMA. The law prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex unions.
But Defense Secretary Panetta, in his announcement, used sweeping language, saying the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" "made clear that discrimination based on sexual orientation has no place in the Department of Defense." He said he can "foresee a time" when the law would allow full benefits for same-sex military couples.
That time could be as soon as this summer. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the constitutionality of DOMA. Lori Hensic says she's looking forward to that.
"We are all definitely standing in applause and thanking Secretary Panetta for extending what he could, and basically the next step is looking to the Supreme Court and hoping that they will follow suit and end DOMA once and for all," she said.
The new partner benefits are expected to be in place between Aug. 31 and Oct. 1 of this year.