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A year and a half ago, the U.S. military allowed gays and lesbians to serve openly in the Armed Forces. Today, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta instructed the military community to serve them. He expanded benefits for same-sex military couples. Partners will now be given base ID cards, for example, giving them access to stores, gyms and counselors.
Secretary Panetta's initiative did not go as far as some would have liked. But as NPR's Tom Bowman reports, the new benefits still signal a big change on base.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Same-sex partners will now be allowed nearly two dozen benefits. They can now get access to child care and legal help, fly on military aircraft if space is available.
Allyson Robinson is executive director of the gay and lesbian military organization OutServe-SLDN. She says that ID card is a prized possession. It allows a partner all the perks of a military base.
ALLYSON ROBINSON: Things like the commissary, the grocery store, the post exchange - sort of the department store - but also things like family counseling facilities, child care facilities.
BOWMAN: And Robinson said today's action echoes what the commander-in-chief said when he was sworn into a second term last month: that gays and lesbians will be treated like anyone else under the law.
ROBINSON: It really answers the call that President Obama issued in his inaugural address to complete this nation's journey toward equality.
BOWMAN: But Secretary Panetta might have done even more. Some benefits, like providing partners with base housing or burial at Arlington National Cemetery, were not among the expanded benefits and are still under review. Pentagon officials say those benefits present legal and policy challenges and might strain the military's scarce resources. One official acknowledged that in surveys, heterosexual military couples worried they'd be bumped from military housing by same-sex couples.
Congressman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, has pressed Pentagon officials for the extended benefits.
REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF: If they do consider that one has a higher status or better status than the other, then they're not giving real meaning to what they're undertaking.
BOWMAN: Still, Schiff praised Panetta and said it was time for Congress to act and repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. The act defines marriage as a union of a man and a woman. And it prohibits the military from offering other same-sex benefits like health care coverage and housing allowances.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.