I’ve been posting on Facebook and Twitter lately about how many days it’s been since my husband, Ben, had to leave Japan despite having moved here with me in August when I was stationed here with the US Marine Corps. He entered Japan on August 2, 2013 on a tourist visa (90-day passport stamp), fully expecting to be allowed to stay indefinitely once he became a dependent under the Status of Forces Agreement (wiki link, full text) between the US and Japan. On October 26, 2013, he left Japan so he would not be here beyond the expiration of his passport stamp. I miss him so much, and although we are confident things will work out, they haven’t yet. Here’s some background info to bring you up to speed.
Orders to OCONUS (Outside the CONtinental US) assignments come in a couple flavors: “unaccompanied” (without dependents) or “accompanied” (with dependents). By default, service members without dependents receive unaccompanied orders, and service members with dependents receive accompanied orders. Under some circumstances, service members with dependents will request unaccompanied orders. Those reasons could include not wanting to transfer children between schools, spouse’s employment, or other such situations. The bottom line is that these orders only come at the request of the service member. In most cases, unaccompanied orders to Okinawa are for 24 months and accompanied orders are 36 months. There are such things as “dependent restricted” assignments, but these are to places where it wouldn’t be appropriate for families (like hazardous duty areas, combat zones, etc.). Okinawa is not considered one of these places.
January 2013: My monitor (the officer at Headquarters Marine Corps in charge of officer assignments) told me that I would be assigned to Okinawa, Japan on unaccompanied orders (because I was not married nor did I have any dependents at the time I received my orders) and once Ben and I were married, Ben would be added to my orders to accompany me (because then he would be a dependent and we would want to live together in Japan, not be separated for any of the reasons unaccompanied orders would be granted).
February 11, 2013: The Department of Defense announced that dependent benefits would be extended to same-sex spouses and domestic partners by August 31, 2013.
May 25, 2013: Ben and I were married in the state of Washington. Such an amazing day.
June 26, 2013: The Supreme Court repealed the Defense of Marriage Act. All indications were that the Department of Defense would extend benefits to same-sex spouses as soon as they were able.
July 8, 2013: I left my previous duty station (Quantico, VA) and was on leave for three weeks before leaving for Okinawa.
August 1, 2013: I flew to Okinawa, Japan on my orders. With assurances from my monitor that Ben would be added to my orders as soon as Ben officially became a dependent, Ben flew at personal expense to Japan on a separate, commercial flight.
August 13, 2013: The Department of Defense issued a memo stating that benefits would be extended to same-sex spouses beginning September 3, 2013. I preemptively submitted a request to have my tour converted from unaccompanied (without dependents) to accompanied (with dependents) once Ben became a military dependent. This request was endorsed recommending approval by my Commanding General on August 22. I don’t know the exact date it was received at Headquarters Marine Corps, but I received an email referencing the request on September 4 from my monitor.
September 6, 2013: Stars & Stripes reported that Japan was not opposed to recognizing same-sex spouses of US service members under the existing SOFA agreement, and that they would not need to formally address the issue with the US government in order to do so. (Some people I’ve spoken to have said this is because Japan does not want to appear to endorse or support same-sex marriage.)
September 11, 2013: Ben received his ID card and was officially entered into the Dependent Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS) with an effective date of June 26, 2013 (the date of the Supreme Court ruling, in accordance with previous DoD guidance). My original orders were modified to include Ben as a dependent residing in Washington (the orders were still unaccompanied). I advised my monitor that Ben had been added as a dependent, and my monitor responded that it would only be a matter of days before my tour conversion was processed to convert my tour from unaccompanied to accompanied.
I have sent weekly emails since then. Initial responses from my monitor were that it would take just a few more days. More recent responses have been that he had been told to stand by until Headquarters Marine Corps issued a policy on same-sex spouses accompanying their military spouses on overseas assignments. Other sources have told me that the General in charge of Marine and Reserve Affairs would issue a policy, others have said the Commanding General of Marine Forces Pacific would be issuing a policy covering the region. Sources at the Pentagon have told me that the decision rests with the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Manpower and Reserve Affairs.
We have come a long way since the repeal of DADT. I don’t get the impression that there are people in the chain of command who are trying to block us from being together. In fact, I think the opposite is true: I think people want to help but are finding themselves mired by policy. For example, the current Navy policy is to find same-sex spouses “unsuitable” for OCONUS locations, therefore denying accompanied orders for service members with same-sex spouses who “will continue to be eligible for world-wide assignment without consideration of sexual orientation” (note that this type of policy applies only to Navy, not Marines, despite the fact that the Marine Corps is in the Department of the Navy). Unfortunately, this didn’t address those of us who were already overseas when our spouses became military dependents.
Some people have suggested a few courses of action, not all of which are available to me. First and foremost, my primary course of action is to continue working within my chain of command for relief. As a Marine officer, this is the most appropriate things for me to do. Within the military, there are a few possibilities:
Equal Opportunity: When the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was repealed in 2011, one of the stipulations made was that sexual orientation would not be added to the military’s equal opportunity policy. As such, the military equal opportunity program cannot assist us.
Inspector General: Seeking relief through the IG’s office is appropriate when the command has acted inappropriately. In my case, Ben and I have the support of my chain of command. They have done everything they are able to in order to accommodate Ben, including granting a waiver to allow him to stay with me in my assigned bachelor officer quarters past the normal 30 days. My chain of command has not done anything inappropriate and thus calling on the IG would not likely find anything else.
Request Mast: Like going through the IG’s office, request mast is a process for seeking relief from the chain of command. From everything we have learned, the decision to approve my tour conversion is not an issue within my chain of command, but a matter of DoD policy. Request Mast would only be appropriate if I believed the chain of command acted against policy or regulation, and they have not.
Have Ben leave the country and come right back: This isn’t a solution. Certainly Ben could leave and come back–many people have done this before, but where would he live? I am assigned to barracks and my application to reside off-base was denied because I am on unaccompanied orders. There are several other reasons why this “solution” is not really viable. First, to grant me permission to reside off base while unaccompanied orders would be unfair to all the other Marines on Okinawa with unaccompanied orders who live in barracks. Second, the lawyers within my chain of command have made it clear that from the Marine Corps’ perspective, leaving and re-entering the country every 90 days could be perceived as trying to circumvent Japan’s immigration policies to live in the country without an appropriate visa. Third, leaving the country and attempting to circumvent the visa process runs the risk of one day being denied entry and facing legal challenges we are not interested in facing. Fourth, round-trip plane tickets off Okinawa and costs associated with staying off-island for even a few days would get extremely expensive if we had to do it every three months for the next two years. Fifth, even if Ben did manage to keep up the schedule of exiting/re-entering every 90 days, he would not be able to maintain an address here and would not be granted coverage under the Status of Forces Agreement, and therefore would not have any legal protections or benefits as a military dependent living in Japan–he would always just be a tourist. Finally–and most importantly, what kind of life does that provide Ben? He deserves a home, and spending two years sneaking in and out of Japan is the opposite of that.
Have Ben apply for a visa to stay in Japan: Japan will grant a visa only if the person applying is sponsored by a Japanese company. Ben is actively seeking employment, but nothing has come up yet. Military jobs seem to be off the table, because all the jobs he’s seen so far require the candidates who are military dependents to have SOFA coverage and be listed on accompanied orders, which we don’t have.
Contact my senators/representative: Although our situation is a matter of policy, I don’t feel it’s appropriate for me to personally appeal to Congress to resolve a military issue. I have every right to contact my legislative representatives, but on this matter it wouldn’t be the right thing to do. It could be perceived as trying to circumvent my chain of command. There is nothing to stop private citizens from contacting their representatives to bring our situation to their attention, and some of our friends and family already have.
Contact the media: I believe in the Marine Corps and I believe in the Department of Defense’s ability and willingness to resolve our situation. I believe that officers have a responsibility to serve as advocates, and I also believe we should be prepared to stand up publicly for what we believe. I do think that the media has the ability to shine a light on issues that might otherwise go unnoticed by the public or policymakers, but I do not think it is appropriate for a service member to alert the media every time something goes wrong. (Update: The media has picked up our story and BuzzFeed’s Chris Geidner wrote a story that Ben and this post were quoted in.)
Contact LGBT advocacy groups: We are already doing this. We are very fortunate to have the support of organizations who are already engaging the DoD on our behalf, as well as other families in similar situations.
Keep watching this page and I’ll update as I’m able.