AMPA Dinner Honors Gay, Lesbian Military Families

By Amaani Lyle
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 18, 2014 - A senior Pentagon leader highlighted the rights and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender families in her keynote remarks at the American Military Partner Association's inaugural National Gala Dinner here yesterday.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy Rosemary Freitas Williams described the Defense Department's efforts in maintaining the readiness and resilience of its military, which she said is "bolstered by the strength of its families."


"Our military will no longer be deprived of the talents and skills of patriotic Americans just because they happen to be gay or lesbian," Williams said. "And now we can say of our military spouses and partners, 'Welcome aboard.'"

Whether in advocacy, education or support for modern military families, Williams said AMPA and similar groups are among the new generation of pioneers within the ranks of military and veterans service organizations.

"History will record your actions and your significance for all time," she said.

Williams also lauded AMPA's desire for "seismic change" in family programs and community outreach, which she said is directly aligned with DOD's desire for fresh dialogue on issues of concern to the entire military community.

"Throughout our nation's history," she said, "the Department of Defense has led social change and continues to foster an environment of respect for every service member and civilian professional."

Williams noted that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently signed a Human Goals Charter to promote diversity and inclusion in the DOD.

She reported that DOD has implemented several initiatives to ensure service members have full access to benefits afforded under the law.

"Since not all local laws are equal when it comes to marriage," Williams said, "we've modified the department's leave policy to allow service members, regardless of their sexual orientation, to be authorized administrative absence so they may travel to the nearest jurisdiction to be legally married."

Williams reported that DOD officials have rewritten the family advocacy program policies, which address issues of prevention of domestic violence and child abuse.

"[It ensures] you, your spouse or partner, and especially important -- your children -- are safe and have the resources available to ensure you are protected," she said.

She also cited policy reviews of commissary and exchange privileges, the morale, welfare and recreation program, childcare and youth programs and others to ensure access is inclusive.

Williams explained that service members, families and survivors can also access resources to help meet the challenges of military life.

"At the core of it all is Military OneSource, a centralized assistance program, available 24/7," Williams said. "[It's] a vibrant website and comprehensive program that provides confidential help and support, a call center and online tools for anything you need to navigate military family life -- I cannot overemphasize the value of this wonderful service."

While Military OneSource receives 700,000 calls a year and has 1.75 million unique visitors, Williams urged ongoing outreach to the LGBT community.

She noted that the top 100 Twitter handles that shared LGBT military spouse news each had more than 20,000 followers.

These influencers, Williams said, have the potential to reach a combined audience of more than 6.8 million Twitter users.

She added, "That is significant outreach -- join the national conversation about the unique needs of all service members, your families and survivors."

Among those participating in that national conversation is AMPA Community Hero Award recipient Tracy Johnson.

Johnson, a North Carolina National Guardsman, is an Iraq War veteran and Army widow who'd wed her longtime partner, Donna, who was killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan in 2012.

Johnson received delayed notification of Donna's death because at that time the primary "next-of-kin" were Donna's parents.

Johnson later applied for VA survivor benefits, but Title 38 had prevented the VA from recognizing her as a surviving spouse despite the Defense of Marriage Act decision.

However, "after the review of the case, the Department of Veterans Affairs has decided to retroactively recognize me," Johnson said over applause.

Johnson emphasized that there is still more work to be done, but said the decision is an important step forward toward the goal of achieving equal treatment for all military families.

"My AMPA family was there for me when the unthinkable happened and continue to be there for me and others as we serve," she said.

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