Widow of New Hampshire National Guard officer cheers Supreme Court marriage decision
Chief Warrant Office Charlie Morgan, right, and her wife Karen relax with their daughter Casey Elena, left, in the living room they were remodeling in the basement of Karen's parents home in New Durham on November 15, 2012. Earlier this year, Morgan stopped receiving chemotherapy for her Stage IV breast cancer and is on convalescence leave from her full-time position in the New Hampshire National Guard. Morgan passed away on Sunday morning. (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
The widow of New Hampshire National Guard officer Charlie Morgan applauded the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down parts of the Defense of Marriage Act yesterday, calling it a major step toward equality for same-sex military couples. Charlie Morgan was a vocal champion of repealing the law before her death from breast cancer in January.
“It’s just overwhelming,” Karen Morgan said. “I’m overjoyed that this ruling came down the way that it did.”
Charlie Morgan of New Durham joined the New Hampshire National Guard in 2008 and served as a chief warrant officer. When “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed in 2011, Morgan announced she was a lesbian on MSNBC and became an advocate for full benefits for same-sex military couples. She and Karen joined in a lawsuit with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network in 2011 challenging Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman on the federal level. When determining military benefits, the Department of Defense must go with that federal definition rather than recognizing marriages that may be legal in a state.
But Charlie died in January after her second battle with breast cancer, and she never had the chance to witness the court’s 5-4 ruling yesterday on a different case, United States v. Windsor, that found the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. The case the Morgans joined also sought to strike down three titles of the U.S. Code pertaining to military spouses. That suit is in U.S. District Court now and the language against same-sex couples should be overturned given yesterday’s court ruling.
“I wish Charlie was here to experience this; it just was such an important part of her life. Her family was everything to her and she fought for us even when she didn’t feel physically well enough to be doing it,” Karen said.
The Department of Defense will begin working immediately to ensure same-sex military couples receive all the same benefits as heterosexual couples, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said yesterday. In February, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the extension of as many benefits as possible while the Defense of Marriage Act was still in place, including joint-duty assignments, issuance of military identification cards and access to spousal programs. Charlie Morgan died just days before that announcement.
Under the current law, Karen did not receive benefits such as access to military health care plans, a military identification card and more. After Charlie’s death, she was not eligible for survivor benefits and lacks the right to be buried next to Charlie at the New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery in Boscawen. Because Karen is part of the other lawsuit, she likely will be eligible for these benefits once that case is decided, said David McKean, legal director for OutServe, which merged with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network last year.
The Morgans’ 6-year-old daughter, Casey Elena, does receive survivor benefits because she was Charlie’s legal dependent.
In her campaign for equal rights, Charlie traveled to Washington, D.C., last year hoping for a meeting with House Speaker John Boehner. When the Justice Department said it would not defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court, the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the U.S. House of Representatives intervened to defend the law. Boehner did not meet directly with Charlie but did send an aide to speak with her. She and Karen also fought for the right of same-sex couples to participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program for soldiers just returning from deployment. Charlie served in Kuwait for one year.
After Charlie’s death, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen also introduced the Charlie Morgan Act, which would make all military and veterans benefits applicable to same-sex couples. Following the Supreme Court’s decision yesterday, Shaheen wrote letters to Hagel and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki asking their departments to embrace the spirit of the ruling and end discrimination against same-sex couples. She lauded Hagel’s announcement that the Pentagon would begin extending benefits as soon as possible.
“The Pentagon’s announcement is a tremendous win for same-sex military families,” she said in a statement. “I’ve long believed that each and every member of our military, their families, and their children deserve all the benefits they’ve earned. I only regret that Charlie isn’t here to celebrate history with us today.”
Karen said she’s been proud to watch Charlie’s efforts for equality live on after her death and that she’ll keep fighting the battle they started together.
“It was a very unselfish legacy – she was primarily concerned with the welfare of others, including me and her family,” Karen said. “It’s touched the lives of so many people, and I’m proud to leave that kind of legacy, because I think that will affect the future. Casey’s generation will look at life and the world differently because of what Charlie’s done.”