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Disabled vet in same-sex marriage sues over denial of full benefits

February 1, 2012 |  1:40 pm

An Iraq war veteran from Pasadena filed suit against the Department of Veterans Affairs on Wednesday over its refusal to pay her full disability benefits because she is in a same-sex marriage.

The lawsuit filed in Los Angeles by Tracey Cooper-Harris seeks a federal court ruling that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional because it discriminates against gays, lesbians and legally married same-sex couples.

Cooper-Harris, who earned the rank of sergeant and more than 20 medals during a dozen years of Army service, was honorably discharged in 2003 and married her spouse, Maggie, during the six-month period in 2008 when same-sex marriage was legal in California. The veteran who trained and provided care for military animals in the war theater, such as explosives-sniffing dogs, has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder since returning to civilian life and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2010.

The regional VA medical center determined that Cooper-Harris' illnesses were "service-related," and she has been collecting benefits since the diagnosis, but at the lesser rate paid to single veterans. In her lawsuit, she notes that in the event of her death her surviving spouse won't be entitled to receive the compensation that would be paid if she were married to someone of the opposite sex.

"There is a good likelihood that multiple sclerosis will cause my death, and I just want to make sure that whatever benefits are available, that Maggie gets them if I do die," Cooper-Harris, 38, said in a telephone interview from Washington, where her lawsuit was announced.

The VA policy of recognizing only opposite-sex spouses as eligible for benefits "sends a disturbing message to gay and lesbian service members that the courage, commitment and sacrifice they make on behalf of their country are not valued as much as the service of heterosexual military veterans," said attorney Randall Lee, whose law firm is representing Cooper-Harris pro bono.

The Obama administration said a year ago that it would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the payment of any federal benefits to same-sex couples, in court after Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. issued an opinion that the 1996 statute is unconstitutional.

Justice Department spokesman Charles S. Miller did not immediately return a phone call for comment on the lawsuit filed against Holder and the VA.

Several challenges to the 14-year-old statute are making their way through federal courts in the Northeast. Cooper-Harris’ suit is the first to seek a ruling on the denial of military disability benefits on the basis of sexual orientation, Lee said.

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-- Carol J. Williams

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