Gay military widow not getting death benefits

March 13, 2014: 12:50 PM ET
tracy dice johnson
It's been well over a year since Tracy Dice Johnson lost her spouse to combat in Afghanistan, but she has yet to receive survivor benefits from the Dept. of Veterans Affairs.
WASHINGTON (CNNMoney)

Tracy Dice Johnson goes to bed each night dreaming about her wife Donna Johnson.

She misses her most around the holidays, especially St. Patrick's Day -- the day they first met -- and Valentine's Day, their wedding anniversary.

National Guard Staff Sgt. Donna Johnson was killed by a suicide bomber at a checkpoint she was helping set up in Khost, Afghanistan on Oct. 1, 2012. She was 29.

"There is no time line on grief," said Tracy, who cries softly when she thinks about that day.

She continues to grieve. But it's not recognized by the federal government.

Nine months after the Supreme Court cleared the way for same-sex couples to get previously denied federal benefits, Tracy is still waiting to receive veteran's death benefits that military spouses get when they lose a loved one to combat.

She has been advised that she may not get the compensation, which run $1,200 a month, because of where she lives - North Carolina.

Related: Same-sex couples still face tax nightmares

When the Supreme Court knocked down the Defense of Marriage Act, it overturned a law that denied federal benefits like tax, immigration, health care and social security to same-sex couples.

However, the court left state marriage laws intact. North Carolina residents voted in 2012 to ban same-sex marriage in their state.

During the lead up to the Supreme Court verdict, Tracy had become one the faces of the movement opposing laws that denied same-sex married couples.

So far, Tracy hasn't officially been denied the benefits. But she's applied twice and has only received letters, most recently in January, that her request was being reviewed.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, which distributes death benefits, said in a statement Thursday that officials are working with the Department of Justice on "guidance" to process requests for same-sex spousal benefits.

The agency didn't say whether they'd distribute death benefits to Tracy but said it would carry out "changes swiftly and smoothly in order to deliver the best services to all our nation's veterans."

Although a federal agency, the VA told CNNMoney that a separate federal law forces it to define a legal marriage based on "state of residence" as of when the couple was married or when benefits were triggered, according to the Veterans Affairs.

Tracy and Donna were married in Washington D.C., a city that allows same-sex marriage. But at the time, they were still primarily living in North Carolina.

Tracy knows at least one other same-sex military widow, Karen Morgan, who is collecting VA death benefits. Morgan lives in New Hampshire, which recognizes same-sex marriages.

"Tracy and I are no different than any other military spouses. Tracy stood by her wife as she made the ultimate sacrifice," said Morgan, whose wife Charlie Morgan was in the National Guard and on active duty when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Charlie died on February 10, 2013. "Tracy deserves benefits, just as any other military spouse."

Related: Same-sex ruling: 'A huge relief'

Tracy, 44, has also served in Iraq for 15 months is now with the National Guard. Through her own service, she qualifies for many military benefits, including college tuition assistance.

Tracy's also not alone in her push to get her marriage recognized. Several other same-sex military couples are waiting to hear about disability or healthcare benefits.

Some have been denied and others are under review by the VA, said Stephen Peters, president of the The American Military Partner Association, which supports gay and lesbian military members and their families. Like Tracy, those couples also live in states that don't recognize same-sex marriages.

"These are benefits these veterans have earned and yet they're still being denied," Peters said.

Last month, Democratic Senators Mark Udall and Jeanne Shaheen filed a bill that would force the VA to recognize married same-sex military couples and award benefits no matter where they lived.

The bill would "ensure our veterans receive the benefits they have earned, regardless of whom they love or in which state they were legally married," Udall said in a statement.

That could take a while. In the meantime, Tracy is trying to move on with her life. She's going to school to get a certificate as a dog trainer.

Taking care of the four dogs she shared with Donna brings Tracy a lot of happiness.

She thinks of Donna every night. She loves full moons, which used to comfort both of them when they were separated by thousands of miles and long months of overseas deployments.

"Anyone who's ever been in a long distance relationship knows when you look at the moon, you know you're looking at the same moon," Tracy said.

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