Avakian and Merkley team up to produce historic win for LGBT military burial rights

Kari Chisholm FacebookTwitterWebsite

The Oregonian's Mike Francis reports today about a historic decision from the Veterans Administration, one that was quietly championed for months by Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian with critical assistance from Senator Jeff Merkley.

It's a decision to allow a woman to be buried in a family plot at Willamette National Cemetery, where she will someday be joined by her wife, a retired Air Force officer.

You see, Don't Ask, Don't Tell may have ended, but the Defense of Marriage Act means that the federal government still doesn't recognize same-sex marriages. And that has a direct impact on LGBT military personnel who wish to be buried with their spouses in national military cemeteries, as is allowed for straight couples.

When Nancy Lynchild was dying of cancer last year, she and her wife - Lt. Col. Linda Campbell, a former military aide to Governor Vic Atiyeh - realized that she wouldn't likely live to see the policy changed.

That is, until a chance phone call between Campbell and Avakian. Francis has the story:

Lynchild's illness and the uncertainty about what would follow her death were weighing on Campbell when she got a phone call from Brad Avakian. Oregon's commissioner of Labor and Industries thinks he was on his way to Eugene for a campaign event last spring and was dialing potential supporters to invite them.

The way they both remember the conversation, Campbell asked what the commissioner of Labor and Industries did. Avakian explained that the office enforced workplace law, including civil rights discrimination claims. Did he support gay rights?, she asked. He did, he said. Did he support gay marriage? He did.

So she explained that Campbell and Lynchild were out thousands of dollars in medical costs that would have been covered under the military retirement package if she had been married to a man. More important, she said, she couldn't be buried with Lynchild at Willamette, near her parents.

But, she told Avakian, "I know there's nothing you can do."

Replied Avakian: "Don't be so sure."

As Oregon's chief civil rights enforcer, Avakian dug into the federal law -- and found an exception.

Under the heading "Persons eligible for interment in national cemeteries," Section 6 notes, burial could be allowed for "such other persons or classes of persons as may be designated by the Secretary."

Avakian also recruited Senator Merkley to the cause. After all, the two of them had worked closely together in the Oregon Legislature on domestic partnerships and the Oregon Equality Act of 2007, prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Merkley discussed the matter personally with [Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric] Shinseki, stressing his and Oregon's position.

The VA should follow the lead of the Defense Department when it struck down "don't ask, don't tell," he told Shinseki. The Constitution specifies that states may not deny equal protection of the law to their citizens. And finally, Merkley said, discrimination against a same-sex spouse is simply morally wrong.

Shinseki, Merkley said, was noncommittal, but promised to review the case carefully.

And now, just a few weeks after Lynchild's death, Shinseki has granted the waiver:

Then Campbell got a call from the VA mortuary official in charge of scheduling. Shinseki had granted the waiver. "It was just surreal. I cried, I shook, I got on my knees, I thanked her."

Merkley said Shinseki had told him he wanted to make a decision that would produce a fair outcome.

"A huge thank you to him," Merkley said. "It's a huge stride for the secretary to come to this conclusion."

Shinseki approved Lynchild's burial, a VA spokesperson said by email, "in part, on evidence of a committed relationship between the veteran and the individual."

This is fantastic. The policy still needs to change, but this first waiver represents an historic step. And huge props to Commissioner Avakian and Senator Merkley for sticking with it and standing up for what's right.

Read the whole 2600-word story from the O's Mike Francis here.

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