PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The Department of Veterans Affairs has decided to allow the same-sex spouse of a member of the military to be buried in a U.S. national cemetery.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki used his discretionary authority to allow the burial of Nancy Lynchild's ashes, the agency said Thursday. U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who called Shinseki last month to lobby for the action, said the Oregon couple will become the first same-sex couple buried together in a national military cemetery. The VA said the request was the first of its kind that Shinseki was asked to consider, and the first he has approved.
The decision, which was first reported by The Oregonian, only applies to retired Lt. Col. Linda Campbell and her spouse, Lynchild, and does not signal a formal change of policy. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a memo to the military services this week that the issue of burials remains a challenge and is under review. A hurdle is the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing any marriage other than that between a man and a woman.
"I felt guilty to some degree when I applied for the waiver for Nancy and me because it felt selfish, in a way," said Campbell, who joined the Air Force in 1968 and later had a long career in the Oregon Air National Guard and Air Force Reserves. "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."
Lynchild was 64 when she died in December at the home she and Campbell shared in Eugene, Ore. The couple, who had been together since 1994, were registered as domestic partners in Oregon and legally married in Canada.
Lynchild was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000 and the couple knew she was dying last spring when Campbell received a phone call from Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, who was running for office.
Campbell, 66, asked Avakian about his stance 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 said she and Lynchild wanted to be buried in Willamette National Cemetery, where the ashes of Campbell's mother and World War II veteran father are buried.
"I just felt like we weren't valued and we weren't respected," Campbell said. "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."
Campbell told Avakian she realized there was nothing he could do to fix the situation. He replied: "Don't be so sure."
Avakian later examined the federal code that covers veterans' benefits and noticed a possible exception to rules that prevent a nonveteran spouse of a same-sex couple from being buried in a VA cemetery. It says the secretary can grant waivers, and he urged Campbell to seek one.
"I knew that things were changing in this country," Avakian said Thursday.
Avakian wrote in support of the waiver, as did Merkley. The secretary, however, only grants them after a death occurs.
Campbell renewed her request when Lynchild passed away. A little more than a month after the death, Campbell got the good news.
"I was stunned to hear from them. I was stunned to get the notice over the phone instead of the mail," Campbell said. "I was in shock. I think my knees went out from under me."
Campbell said the burial will be a private gathering for friends and family. No date has been set. If the waiver had not been granted, the couple's ashes would have eventually been scattered together, and Campbell would have forgone her right to buried in a national cemetery.
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