The Shameful Senate Vote That Denied Gay Veterans the Benefits They Earned

On Memorial Day, Americans remembered the men and women of our armed forces who fought and sacrificed to defend our freedom. Yet just 11 days later, shamefully, the U.S. Senate voted to deprive many combat veterans of the very freedom they risked their lives to protect.

The vote was on a measure I offered to end the prohibition on veterans' benefits for many gay and lesbian service members. Currently, if you are a gay veteran living in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage, your family is entitled to full veterans' benefits. However, a gay veteran with the exact same status -- the same service record, same injuries, same family obligations -- but living in a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage will receive far less.

A majority of Senators voted yes. But 42 Republicans, none of whom even bothered to speak in opposition, voted to continue the discrimination, and my amendment was defeated. Some of those Republicans had previously voted for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, so they retreated from their earlier stand against workplace discrimination against LGBT Americans.

My amendment was based on the Charlie Morgan Military Spouses Equal Treatment Act, which I introduced earlier this year. This bill was named for Charlie Morgan, a military veteran with more than 30 years of service in the New Hampshire and Kentucky National Guard. I first met Charlie in 2011, when she was returning from deployment in Kuwait, diagnosed for a second time with breast cancer. Concerned for the well-being of her wife Karen and their young daughter, Charlie became an outspoken critic of the Defense of Marriage Act, which at the time prohibited her spouse and child from receiving Department of Defense benefits she earned during her service.

Sadly, Charlie did not live to see the Supreme Court strike down the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013. Despite that court ruling, there are still provisions in the U.S. Code that allow state legislatures to indirectly deny federal benefits to many disabled veterans and their families solely because they are in a same-sex marriage.

In other words, many combat veterans are being denied their rights because of whom they love and where they live. In one reported case, a 50-percent-disabled combat veteran was initially approved for benefits for her wife and child but was later told by the Veterans Administration that she would not only lose a portion of her benefits but would also have future payments withheld to repay benefits already received.

The impacts of this discrimination on veterans' families can be devastating. Monthly benefits are less. Spouses and children are not eligible for education assistance, VA medical care, and VA home loans. Families also lose survivor benefits, pension, and burial rights.

This brazen discrimination is unacceptable in today's America. The callous attempt by 42 senators to turn our nation backward will not stand. We have arrived at a historic moment in the long struggle to secure equal rights for all Americans. Thirty-seven states have already recognized marriage equality. Many observers expect the Supreme Court, having already overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, will rule later this month that state prohibitions on same-sex marriage also violate the constitution.

So the Senate's vote last week to allow continued discrimination against gay and lesbian veterans will not be the final word. Because of the courageous advocacy and leadership of Charlie Morgan and so many others, our nation is on the cusp of a historic expansion of civil rights. We hope for a Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality, but that outcome is by no means certain. And in any case, why wait? It is time for Congress to ensure that all veterans, regardless of their sexual orientation, have equal access to the rights they risked their lives to defend.