Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. (Photo: Paul J. Richards, AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON (USA Today) -- The military is poised to extend some benefits to the same-sex partners of service members, U.S. officials said Tuesday, about 16 months after the Pentagon repealed its ban on gays serving openly.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has not made a final decision on which benefits will be included, the officials said, but the Pentagon is likely to allow same-sex partners to have access to the on-base commissary and other military-subsidized stores, as well as some health and welfare programs.
Panetta must walk a fine, legal line. Though there has been increased pressure on the Pentagon to extend some benefits to same-sex partners, Defense officials must be careful not to violate the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA. The federal law forbids the federal government from recognizing any marriage other than that between a man and a woman.
An announcement is likely to come in the next several days. Officials discussed the plan with the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss internal Pentagon deliberations.
Pentagon spokesman George Little declined to comment. Other officials made it clear that there are last-minute legal discussions going on to determine the details.
Officials said the military will probably require that some type of document be signed to designate the military member's partner as a legitimate recipient of the benefits.
Panetta's decision comes as he nears the end of his tenure as Pentagon chief and days after a woman married to a female Army officer at Fort Bragg was invited to become a full member of the North Carolina base's officers' spouses club after initially being denied. The Marine Corps has said any spouses clubs operating on its bases must admit same-sex partners.
Last year, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, introduced legislation that would extend same-sex benefits to spouses of veterans and servicemembers. He said now that gays serve openly in the military, their spouses should receive the same benefits.
"Building on the repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell,' this is another big step toward full equality in the military," Smith said Tuesday. "No individual should be deprived of the benefits they have earned simply because of who they have married."
Under his measure, the Defense Department and Veterans Affairs Department would have to recognize any marriage that has been recognized by a state, the District of Columbia, commonwealths or territories. Nine states and the District of Columbia allow gay and lesbian couples to marry.
The repeal of the ban on gays serving openly in the military took effect in September 2011, and since then, the Pentagon has been reviewing policies and procedures to see what military benefits can be opened to same-sex partners without violating DOMA.
The Supreme Court is likely to rule on the constitutionality of DOMA in June.
Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook and the Associated Press.