US gay military spouses to get same benefits

Spouses of gays in the military will get the same benefits as their heterosexual counterparts, the US defense chief said Wednesday in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage.

In a symbol of the new benefits granted, same-sex spouses will now be eligible for burial at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington.

"The Department of Defense intends to make the same benefits available to all military spouses -- regardless of sexual orientation -- as soon as possible," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement.

"That is now the law and it is the right thing to do."

In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court struck down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal benefits to married gay and lesbian couples by strictly defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

"Every person who serves our nation in uniform stepped forward with courage and commitment. All that matters is their patriotism, their willingness to serve their country, and their qualifications to do so," Hagel said.

"Today's ruling helps ensure that all men and women who serve this country can be treated fairly and equally, with the full dignity and respect they so richly deserve."

The United States lifted a ban on gays serving openly in the military in September 2011.

In February, the Pentagon extended some military benefits to same-sex partners, but said provisions like medical coverage would not be offered due to legal barriers.

The withheld provisions included providing same-sex partners with military identity cards, hospital visitation rights, access to youth and education programs and financial compensation in the event of the soldier's death.

The Pentagon estimates that some 5,600 active duty service members -- 17,000 when including the National Guard, reservists and retirees -- will be affected by the striking down of DOMA.

mra/vlk-sst/rcw