Blumenthal, Norwich woman battle for equal benefits for veterans

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., is teaming up with a Norwich veteran to press for all military benefits to be extended to veterans in same-sex marriages.

During an afternoon press conference at the state Capitol, Blumenthal joined Carmen Cardona, an 18-year Navy veteran, to press the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to follow the lead of the Department of Defense and most other federal agencies.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court concluded seven weeks ago in the landmark U.S. v. Windsor case that defining marriage solely as a heterosexual union is unconstitutional, President Obama has directed all agencies to comply.

But VA secretary, Gen. Eric Shinseki, wrote to Blumenthal’s office on July 19 that certain provisions of the U.S. Code “define ‘spouse’ and ‘surviving spouse’ to refer only to a person of the opposite sex. Under these provisions, a same-sex marriage recognized by the state would not confer spousal status for purposes of eligibility for VA benefits.”

Shinseki noted that no court has specifically struck down this code to date.

Cardona, who had been assigned to the Groton submarine base for much of her 12 years of active duty and six years in the Reserves, has been trying to change that in court since 2010. She is the lead plaintiff in a case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.

That case is still pending, but has bogged down as the VA seeks advice from the Department of Justice as to whether the Windsor case applies to the U.S. Code that it follows.

“This press conference shouldn’t be necessary,” said Blumenthal, who this week petitioned the White House and the U.S. Attorney General’s Office to intervene, adding that if they did so, the issue could be resolved “within a matter of minutes.”

The VA should be providing health, disability and any other benefits veterans’ spouses are entitled to, regardless of sexual orientation, provided they were married validly in a state that recognizes this marriage. “This is the law of the land,” he said.

Cardona sought a $150 per month increase in her Navy disability benefit in 2010 when she married her wife.

“The most important thing is not the money,” she said. “It’s the principle.”

Cardona added that for the 18 years of her military service, “I lived in a gray zone,” unable to be completely free and open about her orientation.

“I loved the military and I loved serving my country,” she added. “This is who I am and want to be in public, not living in a gray area.”

Jennifer McTiernan, a law school intern at the Veterans’ Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School, has been assisting Cardona with her case.

McTiernan said it is difficult to estimate how many veterans and their spouses might be affected nationwide by a change in VA benefits’ eligibility rules.

But she added that “the impact of this would not be small. … The Department of Defense has done the right thing (with active military personnel) with far more serious cost implications.”

“Veterans like Carmen Cardona risked their lives for our country, supported by spouses who sacrificed at home as their loved ones served abroad,” Blumenthal ssaid. “To deny these families equal rights and benefits is a grave injustice unworthy of our great nation.”

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