Veteran With Service-Related Disability Sues For Same-Sex Spousal Benefits

Tracey Cooper Harris, Army Veterinarian

The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed suit on behalf of Iraq War Veteran Tracey Harris, who is fighting to obtain veterans’ disability benefits for her wife Maggie. Tracey continues to receive treatment for PTSD and multiple sclerosis, both of which the VA has determined are service-related, but Title 38 of the United States Code (veterans’ benefits) and the Defense of Marriage Act reject Maggie as a “spouse,” thus depriving them of the same spousal benefits as families with opposite-sex partners.

The inequities Tracey and Maggie face amount to thousands of dollars:

  • As a single veteran rated as 80% disabled, Tracey receives compensation of $1,478 per month. As a married veteran, she should be entitled to $1,602 per month. This deprives her and Maggie of $1,488 every year — a full month’s worth of support.
  • In the event of Tracey’s death, Maggie should be entitled to a minimum survivor’s benefits of $1,195. Because she is a same-sex spouse, she is entitled to no such benefit at all.
  • Maggie would also not be eligible for burial benefits with Tracey, including a government headstone or marker, a burial flag, inscription of their names, burial together, and perpetual care of the burial site.

Tracey explains the importance of this suit:

I dedicated 12 years of my life to serving the country I love. I’m asking only for the same benefits the brave men and women who served beside me enjoy. By refusing to recognize our marriage, the federal government has deprived Maggie and me of the peace of mind that such benefits are meant to provide to veterans and their families.

An interesting twist in the suit involves Title 38, the code that limits benefits to spouses “of the opposite sex.” That language had little to do with the discriminating intent behind 1996’s Defense of Marriage Act, but was in fact the result of SPLC’s 1973 victory in the case, Frontiero v. Richardson. Before then, only wives of veterans could receive benefits — not husbands.