RALEIGH, N.C. — The North Carolina National Guard announced Monday that it will begin recognizing same-sex marriages, a policy shift that could have substantial financial help for families not previously eligible for the same federal military benefits awarded to heterosexual couples.
Spokesman Lt. Col. Maury A. Williams said the Guard will abide by U.S. Department of Defense orders extending benefits to the same-sex spouses of uniformed service members. Williams said couples who wed in states where same-sex marriage is legal can begin applying for benefits immediately.
"In accordance with all applicable DOD directives, rules and regulations, we will do our best to facilitate effective and efficient assistance for these service members and their partners," Williams said.
With the announcement, North Carolina sidesteps a potentially thorny legal issue.
The Pentagon changed its policy following a landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in June striking down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which forbade federal agencies from recognizing same-sex unions. However, National Guard units have dual status as both federal troops and members of state militias, putting them under the command of both the president and the governor of the state where they are located.
Thirty-three states have laws or constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, while 19 recognize same-sex spouses. North Carolina voters approved a Constitutional amendment in 2012 limiting marriage to a man and a woman.
After the U.S. Department of Defense began allowing same-sex couples to apply for identification cards and benefits last week, National Guard officials Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana said they would refuse to process the applications. All three states have gay-marriage bans and are led by socially conservative Republican governors.
Asked for Gov. Pat McCrory's response, spokeswoman Kim Genardo replied Monday evening that the payment of federal military benefits doesn't involve state funds. She did not comment on the potential conflict with North Carolina's gay marriage ban or whether the governor's staff was consulted prior to the Guard's announcement.
The N.C. National Guard is comprised of about 12,000 soldiers and airmen, many of whom have been called to active duty in recent years for deployments to war zones in the Middle East.
Beyond the potential financial benefits that come with recognition, the change announced Monday will put the same-sex partners of Guard soldiers on equal footing with their heterosexual counterparts in other important ways.
In October 2012, Sgt. Donna R. Johnson of Raeford was one of three N.C. National Guard soldiers killed by a Taliban suicide bomber while on patrol in Khost, Afghanistan. The 29-year-old sergeant had been legally married earlier that year in Washington, D.C., to her longtime partner, a fellow Guard soldier. But as far as the military was concerned, Johnson died a single woman.
Johnson's widow, Staff Sgt. Tracy Dice Johnson, learned of her wife's death from a sister-in-law. The Army casualty officers tasked with delivering the bad news did not consider her to be the next-of-kin.
An Associated Press story about the deaths made no mention of their relationship because a spokesman for the Guard told a reporter that Johnson was unmarried.
Dice Johnson, who survived five bomb explosions during a 15-month tour in Iraq, was also ineligible for such basic military survivor benefits such as receiving the wedding ring recovered from her wife's body or the monthly military indemnity payment of $1,215. She was only allowed to participate in her wife's military funeral because her mother-in-law approved.
Following Monday's announcement, Dice Johnson said her priority will be to have the marital status listed on her wife's death certificate changed from "Single" to "Married." She has already been in touch with Survivor Outreach Services at Fort Bragg to see if the new policy change will apply retroactively to recognize her marriage.
"For me, this is a huge step forward when compared to where we were a year ago," Dice Johnson said. "It means we're finally equal. We can stand up and be recognized."