In just over two years, Denise Lancaster has gone from being a secret that could have gotten Maj. Mary Miller fired to a recognized spouse with equal rights.
“It’s pretty amazing. For me, it’s been a quick two-year change,” Lancaster said, referencing the time between the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell to the removal of the Defense of Marriage Act. “It’s a huge deal not only to have benefits, but for my wife’s service to be equal to everybody else’s service.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling in June on the federal government’s marriage act paved the way for the Defense Department to begin recognizing same-sex couples with marriage certificates from the 14 states where gay marriage is legal.
Lancaster and Miller, an Apache pilot with 4th Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, married in May 2012 in New York City. The couple has been together for three years, but just in the last month did the Defense Department formally recognize Lancaster as part of the Army family.
“This has definitely made our relationship stronger,” Miller said.
For years the couple had been forced to hide their relationship, and Miller said she often worried someone might see them together and she would be fired or lose her security clearance.
“It’s taken a lot of stress out of my life personally, therefore making us closer,” she added. “Neither one of us want to be in the closet. It’s never been anything I wanted to do, but my job made it mandatory.”
The Defense Department began issuing ID cards to same-sex couples Sept. 3. Since then, 28 spouses have taken advantage of the opportunity at Fort Hood, according to information from the Directorate of Human Resources.
Lancaster was there on the first day, and she commended the office on its professionalism.
“I immediately drove off post ... and I went right back on with my ID card. It felt pretty great. It’s a silly thing to do, but a huge symbol for me to not only go through the gate, but having an actual real ID and being able to go through the gate as an equal spouse,” Lancaster said. “It truly made me feel like I am a part of that whole community, whereas I did not feel a part of that community before.”
Peace of mind
Miller is currently on her 10th deployment, this time to Kuwait, and said knowing her marriage is official gives her peace of mind — especially while she’s away.
“It’s a relief,” she said during a phone call. “Not that my command hasn’t been extremely supportive, but now legally ... she’s recognized as being my spouse in more than just the state of New York.”
Not only does that mean the couple can take advantage of military benefits such as increased housing allowance, the ability to move together and on-post programs, Lancaster can also be the emergency contact should something happen to Miller downrange.
“It’s the same sacrifice, whether you’re homosexual or heterosexual,” Lancaster said. “I think initially I felt like military life was something that was happening to me and that I had to withstand in order to be Mary’s wife.”
Since Miller deployed in August, Lancaster quit her job in Killeen and moved back to their home state of North Carolina to be with her father, who is ill. It’s a move she couldn’t have made without the health insurance she now receives through Tricare.
In February, military officials estimated that about 17,000 military personnel and veterans would apply for partial benefits for their domestic partners, 5,600 of whom were active-duty service members. A spokesperson for the Army last week said there is currently no estimate.
The American Military Partner Association, a nonprofit educating same-sex couples on their benefits, said it has about 3,500 members, but is also unclear how many couples are eligible for benefits.
Army officials said they are not tracking how many same-sex couples have acquired dependent ID cards, because they are now seen as the same as opposite-sex couples — which is exactly how Lancaster thinks it should be.
“I hope this becomes a non-issue,” she said.