Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian said, “I knew that things were changing in this country.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs announced Thursday that VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has “used his discretionary authority” to allow the same-sex spouse of a retired military servicemember to be buried in a US national cemetery. The Oregon couple will be the first same-sex couple to be granted this honor. The VA explained that this request was “the first of its kind that [Secretary Shinseki] was asked to consider, and the first he has approved. The Associated Press reports that this decision, while monumental applies only to retired Lieutenant Colonel Linda Campbell and her deceased spouse Nancy Lynchild, and does not “signal a formal change of policy.” According to a memo from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to the military services, “the issue of burials remains a challenge and is under review.”
Lynchild, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, died in December in the couples home in Eugene, Oregon, at the age of 64. The couple had been together since 1994, were legally married in Canada, and were regestered as domestic partners in Oregon. But because of the Defense of Marriage Act, which is still the “law of the land” in the US, the military does not recognize any legal union other than that of a man and a woman, which means that unless granted specific permission by the VA Secretary they cannot be buried together in a national cemetery.
Last spring, after 12 years of battling her disease, the couple knew that Lynchild was dying. It was at this time that Campbell spoke with Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian. She asked him where he stood on gay rights, and “expressed frustration that she and Nancy couldn’t be buried together because neither their marriage nor their domestic partnership was recognized by the federal government.” She explaind to Commissioner Avakian that it was their desire to be buried together in Willamette National Cemetary alongside Campbell’s mother and father, who was a veteran of WWII. Campbell said, “I just felt like we weren’t valued and we weren’t respected. And I wanted us to be honored for the people we were and the role I played in the Air Force. And I wanted us to be like mom and dad.” At the end of their conversation Campbell told Avakian that she understood “there was nothing he could do to fix the situation,” but to her surprise he replied, “Don’t be so sure.”
It was Avakian who discovered, after examining the veterans’ benefits federal code, that a “possible exception” to the rule that bans a nonveteran same-sex spouse from being buried in a national cemetery may exist. What he found was that the VA Secretary can grant waivers for special circumstances. However, the request will only be granted after a death occurs. Campbell, who had originally sent in a request before Lynchild’s death, renewed her petition to the secretary after her spouse died, and both Commissioner Avakian and U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley wrote in their support of the waiver. Senator Merkley also called Secretary Shinseki directly to lobby for the couple.
Campbell received the answer from the VA a little over a month after Lynchild’s death. She said, “I was stunned to hear from them. I was stunned to get the notice over the phone instead of the mail. I was in shock. I think my knees went out from under me.” Campbell, who enlisted in the Air Force in 1968, and then moved to the Oregon Air National Guard and Air Force Reserves said, “I felt guilty to some degree when I applied for the waiver for Nancy and me because it felt selfish, in a way. I knew there were many others who longed for this opportunity, and I felt like we should be asking for all of us. But I knew that the Defense of Marriage Act was bigger than I was, and it wouldn’t do any of us any good.”
Although this does not change the overall policy, by Campbell and Lynchild asking for, and being granted the right to be buried together in a VA cemetery precedents are being set that will in no doubt have far reaching effects on military and veteran policies in the (hopefully) very near future. Lynchild’s burial will be a private affair, and Campbell says no date has been decided on yet. She also said that if their request had been denied, she would have “forgone her right to be buried in a national cemetery,” and instead the couples ashes would have been scattered together.