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Tuesday February 9th, 2016 10:58AM

Hagel blasts states on same-sex benefits policy

By The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday sharply criticized U.S. states that are defying the Pentagon by refusing to allow National Guard facilities to issue ID cards that enable same-sex spouses of military members to claim benefits.

"This is wrong," Hagel said in a speech in New York.

"Not only does this violate the states' obligation under federal law, their actions have created hardship and inequality by forcing couples to travel long distances to federal military bases to obtain the ID cards they're entitled to," he said.

Hagel said this is causing division among the military ranks.

In his remarks to an Anti-Defamation League centennial dinner speech, Hagel did not name the states that are defying Pentagon policy on this issue. But the Pentagon has cited nine: Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and West Virginia.

The Pentagon says there are 114 Army and Air National Guard sites in those nine states that are not providing ID cards to eligible same-sex spouses.

Hagel also used his speech to announce that he has directed the Marine Corps to expedite the manufacture and delivery to Israel of V-22 Osprey aircraft, hybrids that take off and land like a helicopter and cruise like an airplane. It is to be the first overseas sale of the Osprey.

Hagel also offered assurances that the Obama administration's interest in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program is a way of testing Iranian intentions for a diplomatic solution to a matter that has been in dispute for years.

"If we can find ways to resolve disputes peacefully, we are wise to explore them," he said. Israel is skeptical of any negotiation with Iran.

Convinced Iran is pursuing the development of nuclear weapons to threaten his country, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the Iranians are trying to trick the West into easing economic sanctions while still pushing forward with their nuclear program. Iran insists its program is for peaceful purposes.

Hagel focused much of his dinner speech on the gay rights matter, which was a central issue during the tenure of his predecessor at the Pentagon, Leon Panetta. Panetta, who retired in February, was honored at the dinner for his long career in public service.

Under Pentagon policy that took effect Sept. 3, same-sex spouses of military members are eligible for the same health care, housing and other benefits enjoyed by opposite-sex spouses. That decision followed the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in June on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Some states, however, have refused to allow issuance of the necessary Pentagon ID cards on National Guard facilities.

In Oklahoma, for example, Gov. Mary Fallin ordered her state's National Guard to stop processing requests, making legally married gay couples apply for benefits on federal facilities like Tinker Air Force Base. Oklahoma in 2004 approved a constitutional amendment prohibiting giving benefits of marriage to gay couples.

Hagel said these states' policies are unfair. He said he ordered the chief of the National Guard Bureau, Gen. Frank Grass, to "take immediate action to remedy this situation."

It was not immediately clear what legal authority Grass has to force the states to change course.

Hagel said he instructed Grass to meet with the adjutants general from the nine states where the ID cards are being denied at state facilities. He said those adjutants general, who work for their states' governor, "will be expected to comply" with Pentagon policy on this issue.

The American Military Partner Association, an advocacy group for gay and lesbian military members, praised Hagel's remarks.

"Secretary Hagel has made it clear the National Guard in these few rogue states are failing to live up to their obligations to military families under federal law," said Stephen Peters, the association's president. "We applaud him in showing strong leadership by ordering the National Guard in these states to comply and follow lawful direction and DoD policy."

Defense officials estimate there are 18,000 same-sex couples in the active-duty military, National Guard and Reserves and among military retirees. It's unclear how many of those are married. The Pentagon policy on equal access to benefits does not apply to unmarried gay partners of military members.

A Pentagon ban on gays serving openly in the military was dropped in September 2011.
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