First Same-Sex Spouse Burial at a National Cemetery Approved
On January 29th, 2013, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki approved the first ever same-sex spouse burial at a national cemetery. Retired Air Force Lt. Colonel Linda Campbell will now be able to intern the ashes of her spouse, Nancy Lynchild, who died of metastatic breast cancer on December 22nd, 2012, at the Willamette National Cemetery in Oregon. Services are being planned.
Shinseki’s approval comes on the heels of Department of Defense Leon Panetta’s announcement to extend several benefits to same-sex spouses of military members. Benefits that were not extended to same-sex couples were housing allowances, on-base housing, health care, and burial benefits. Campbell had actually requested a waiver from Shinseki for burial benefits in May 2012 when making burial plans with Lynchild, and then again shortly after Lynchild’s death in December 2012, both dates before Panetta’s announcement.
Congress struck down the years-long policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” regarding the sexual orientation of military members in 2010. However, this policy only applied to the Department of Defense and not the Department of Veterans Affairs. In addition, the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines a marriage as between one man and one woman, is still federal law.
Campbell was active duty Air Force for four years, followed by many years in the Oregon Air National Guard then the Air Force Reserves, where she retired in 1994. She and Lynchild had tried on several occasions to legalize their twenty-plus year relationship, including registering as domestic partners twice, marrying in Multnomah County, Oregon in 2004, and marrying again in Vancouver, B.C. in 2010.
Campbell had two advocates assisting her in the push for burial benefits; Brad Avakian, Oregon’s Commissioner of Labor and Industry, and Senator Jeff Merkley. Nonveteran same-sex spouses cannot be buried in a national cemetery as long as DOMA stands. However, Avakian found a small portion of Section 6 of the laws regarding burial that states burial in a national cemetery can happen with “such other persons or classes of persons as may be designated by the Secretary.” Both Senator Merkley and Commissioner Avakian wrote multiple letters to the Veterans Affairs Offices, advocating for such a “designation by the Secretary.” In addition, Avakian’s office believed the policy was in violation of civil rights laws and was planning to challenge the policy in court should the burial not be approved.
Shinseki approved Lynchild’s burial based “in part, on evidence of a committed relationship between the veteran and the individual.”
Nancy Lynchild’s ashes will be interned with the ashes of Joyce and Gordon Campbell, Linda’s parents. There is one spot left at the site, reserved for Linda.