Letter to Secretary Shinseki - LGBT Rights

Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray, a senior member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, led a letter to U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki calling for an expedited waiver process granting same-sex veterans and their spouses burial rights in national cemeteries. Currently, only members of the opposite-sex are buried next to their veteran spouse in national cemeteries.

"For the LGBT members of our nation's armed forces, and for those of us who support them, the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell' was only the first step on the road towards equality," said Senator Murray. "Our country now must work to ensure each of our heroes receives the same quality care and services once they leave the military -- and this includes a dignified burial for them, and their spouses. I was glad to see Secretary Shinseki honor the request of Lieutenant Colonel Campbell on behalf of her wife Nancy and am hopeful he will not only seriously consider similar requests in the future, but implement an expedited process so no veteran will have to face uncertainty when mourning the loss of their spouse."

Senator Murray was joined by 15 Senators in sending the letter, which read in part:

"We strongly believe in equality under the law for all Americans, particularly for our veterans, who continually put themselves in harm's way for our country. It is unacceptable that, after selflessly serving their nation, these men and women who have given so much would not be allowed to be buried next to the person they love in our national cemeteries…Offering burial rights in national cemeteries to same sex spouses of our nation's veterans is not only a matter of fairness and equity, it is simply the right thing to do."

On January 29, 2013, Secretary Shinseki granted a waiver, the first of its kind, for the burial of civilian Nancy Lynchild in Willamette National Cemetery in Portland, Oregon. Her spouse, retired Lieutenant Colonel Linda Campbell, led the months long efforts to make the waiver a reality.

Senator Murray was joined by the following Senators in sending this letter to Secretary Shinseki: Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Mark Udall (D-CO), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Mark Warner (D-VA), Mark Begich (D-AK), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Al Franken (D-MN), Chris Coons (D-DE), Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Mazie Hirono (D-HI).

The full text of the letter follows:

March 5, 2013

The Honorable Eric K. Shinseki
Secretary of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20420

Dear Secretary Shinseki:

We are writing to commend you for granting a waiver to Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col) Linda Campbell, so that her spouse, Ms. Nancy Lynchild, can be laid to rest alongside her in Willamette National Cemetery. We strongly believe in equality under the law for all Americans, particularly for our veterans, who continually put themselves in harm's way for our country. It is unacceptable that, after selflessly serving their nation, these men and women who have given so much would not be allowed to be buried next to the person they love in our national cemeteries.

We expect that you will continue to grant similar waivers moving forward. Making this important change is a matter of basic fairness and equity. We have applauded the President for his decision not to defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in federal court, and we welcomed the Department of Defense's recent announcement that they will extend additional benefits to LGBT service members and their families. We also commend you, and the Department of Veterans Affairs, for working to ensure that the Department is a welcoming place for LGBT veterans and their families, and for your continued commitment to achieving equity and fairness for all of our nation's veterans.

Although the Obama Administration has taken important steps towards achieving equality for LGBT Americans and their families, such as recognizing the validity and dignity of committed same sex couples and working to end discrimination in federal benefits on the basis of sexual orientation, there is still much more work to be done. Numerous federal benefits remain restricted by DOMA, including specific benefits that could soften the tragic blow of the loss of a loved one.

While we work to repeal DOMA in Congress, it is our hope that the Department of Veterans Affairs will continue to examine its policies and implement changes that further advance equality for all Americans. We ask that such changes include implementing an expedited waiver process, so that a veteran mourning the loss of her same-sex spouse need not also worry whether her spouse can be buried alongside her in a national cemetery. Offering burial rights in national cemeteries to same sex spouses of our nation's veterans is not only a matter of fairness and equity, it is simply the right thing to do.

Thank you for granting spousal burial benefits to Lt Col Campbell, and for your continued commitment to our nation's veterans. We look forward to your response on this important matter.

Sincerely,

Senator Patty Murray
Senator Jeff Merkley
Senator Patrick Leahy
Senator Dianne Feinstein
Senator Barbara Boxer
Senator Ron Wyden
Senator Maria Cantwell
Senator Mark Udall
Senator Jeanne Shaheen
Senator Mark Warner
Senator Mark Begich
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand
Senator Al Franken
Senator Chris Coons
Senator Brian Schatz
Senator Mazie Hirono