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Thanks to a waiver signed by Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, the ashes of Nancy Lynchild, wife of retired United States Air Force Lt. Col. Linda Campbell, will be interred in Willamette National Cemetery. Campbell and Lynchild, who died in December 2012, were registered as domestic partners in Oregon and married in Vancouver, British Columbia in 2010. Because of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the federal government does not recognize their marriage. Hence, a special waiver from the Secretary of Veterans Affairs was necessary to permit the burial of Lychild's remains.
As Mike Francis reports in a sensitively written feature article in The Oregonian, the waiver resulted from a "monthslong campaign" by Campbell, encouraged and supported by Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries Commissioner Brad Avakian and Senator Jeff Merkley.
When Avakian learned of the women's desire to be buried together, he was aware of the restrictions imposed by DOMA, but decided to do some research. He looked up the section of the federal code that covers veterans' benefits. It was true, he saw, that same-sex couples could not have nonveteran partners buried in national cemeteries as long as federal law defined marriage as being between a man and a woman. But he saw the possibility of an exception.
Under the heading "Persons eligible for interment in national cemeteries," Section 6 notes, burial could be allowed for "such other persons or classes of persons as may be designated by the Secretary [of the Department of Veterans Affairs, which owns and operates the national cemeteries.]"
At Avakian's urging, Campbell filed her first request for a waiver last May, when Lynchild's death seemed imminent. Avakian and Merkley wrote in support of the request.
The Veterans Administration acknowledged the correspondence, but offered no answer. To the agency, waivers are granted only at the "time of need," which it interpreted to mean when death has occurred.
After Lynchild died in December, Campbell renewed her request, again with support from Avakian and Merkley. Merkley discussed the matter personally with Shinseki, stressing his and Oregon's position.
The VA should follow the lead of the Defense Department when it struck down "don't ask, don't tell," Merkley told Shinseki. The Constitution specifies that states may not deny equal protection of the law to their citizens. And finally, Merkley said, discrimination against a same-sex spouse is simply morally wrong.
Meanwhile, Avakian's office had drafted a civil rights complaint against Shinseki and Willamette National Cemetery. It said the commissioner of Oregon's Bureau of Labor and Industries had reason to believe the federal agency was illegally denying equal burial rights to a same-sex spouse. All that would be required to set the process in motion would be Avakian's signature.
"I never wanted to have to pull the trigger," Avakian told Francis. "But I was ready to use every possible tool I had to make it happen."
But filing the complaint proved not to be necessary. Campbell received notice that Shinseki had granted the waiver.
Shinseki approved Lynchild's burial, a VA spokesperson said by email, "in part, on evidence of a committed relationship between the veteran and the individual."
Shinseki's decision to grant the waiver comes on the heels of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's extension of benefits of the families of gay and lesbian servicemembers. In Panetta's announcement, he pointedly observed that DOMA made it impossible for him to include burial in national cemeteries among the extended benefits.
As Jacob Combs observes in Equality on Trial, the Prop 8 blog, "Campbell's story illustrates the injustices faced by military spouses in a post-Don't Ask, Don't Tell world in which they are finally able to speak openly about their relationships but barred from the full legal recognition the military offers to opposite-sex married couples."
Combs points out that the question of military burial also figures in "an argument made by the state of Massachusetts in the DOMA case (Massachusetts v. Health and Human Services) filed in 2009 by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley. During the consideration of that case by U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Tauro, Maura Healey, the state's assistant AG, highlighted the effects of DOMA in terms of veterans' burial rights. DOMA, Massachusetts argued, essentially forces a state to choose between implementing its own civil rights policies and forfeiting federal funding for violating DOMA. This argument parallels the civil rights complaint that Oregon's Brad Avakian prepared against the VA."
Combs observes that Shinseki's approval of Campbell's waiver would seem to open the door for other gay and lesbian veterans to seek similar rights for their non-military spouses, but notes that "a substantial effort--including seeking the support of a U.S. senator and high ranking state official--was required of Campbell to secure a basic right and expression of dignity offered automatically to opposite-sex military couples."
Until DOMA is tossed in the trashbin of history, glbtq couples, including those in which one or both members have served in the military, will be subject to gross discrimination.
The video below was produced by The Oregonian.