Retired military officer can bury same-sex partner in national cemetery

The Department of Veterans Affairs says it granted Linda Campbell's request based in part on evidence of a committed relationship between her and her longtime partner.

In life, they lived together. So it's only fair, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Linda Campbell says, that she and her partner be buried together.

In a military veterans' first, the government has granted Campbell's request for the ashes of her same-sex partner, Nancy Lynchild, to be interred at a national cemetery -- Oregon's Willamette National Cemetery, The Oregonian reports. When Campbell passes, she'll be laid to rest there, too.

Lynchild died of breast cancer in Eugene, Ore., on Dec. 22. She was 64.

Willamette is one of 131 national cemeteries in 39 states that traditionally are the resting grounds for U.S. military personnel, veterans and their spouses. But because federal law still defines marriage as being between a man and a woman, it took an exception by Eric Shinseki, the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, for Campbell's wish to be granted, according to The Oregonian.

The newspaper said Shinseki personally approved a waiver of VA policy to permit the burial. The move follows a series of steps taken by the Obama administration to make the military more accommodating to gays and lesbians.

On Monday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the Pentagon is extending some benefits to same-sex partners of service members, including child-care services and the right to visit their loved ones in military hospitals. The federal Defense of Marriage Act still blocks the Defense Department from enacting other benefits now provided to heterosexual military spouses and their children — most notably medical and dental care, housing allowances and death benefits.

"It's miraculous," Campbell told The Oregonian. "I never dreamed in my lifetime things would change."

Campbell, 66, got help along the way from Brad Avakian, commissioner of the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who wrote letters of support to the federal government on her behalf, according to The Oregonian.

Word of the Shinseki's approval arrived on Jan. 29, more than a month after Lynchild died.

According to The Oregonian, Campbell and Lynchild met in the mid-1990s, registered in Oregon as domestic partners and legally married in Vancouver, British Columbia, in November 2010. Oregon doesn't recognize same-sex marriages.

Campbell's mother, Joyce, died in 2004, and her father, Gordon Campbell, a retired World War II staff sergeant, died in 2009, according to The Oregonian. Their ashes share a grave at Willamette.

"I was just so grateful they had this," Campbell told the newspaper. "At the same time, I was hurt that Nancy and I couldn't be honored the same way."

But Avakian told the newspaper he found a clause in the section of the federal code that covers veterans' benefits that suggested some wiggle room. Under the heading "Persons eligible for interment in national cemeteries," one section notes, burial could be allowed for "such other persons or classes of persons as may be designated by the Secretary."

"We raised that with the VA and that’s what eventually led us down the road to get a waiver," Avakian told MSN News.

Campbell filed an initial request to Shinseki for a waiver in May, when it appeared Lynchild didn't have much longer to live, according to The Oregonian. Avakian and Merkley also wrote to the VA.

On Jan. 29, The Oregonian reported, Campbell got the call from a VA mortuary official she had long been waiting for: Shinseki had granted the waiver.

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"She of course was moved, was thrilled that her country had come to the right decision, and I think it gave her great peace," Avakian told MSN News.

"This is a very direct and clear sign that they recognize the longtime and committed, loving relationship that Nancy and Linda had. It is historic."

In a statement to MSN News, a Veterans Affairs spokesperson said:

"VA is committed to taking care of veterans and their families, and recognizes the desire of veterans to have the opportunity to be buried with a loved one with whom they have shared a committed relationship. Using his discretionary statutory authority, Secretary Shinseki has designated the same-sex partner of a veteran as eligible for burial in a national cemetery based, in part, on evidence of a committed relationship between the veteran and the individual.

"Previously, the secretary has also used his discretionary authority to designate others, such as a sibling, a child or a parent as eligible for burial in a VA national cemetery. VA will continue to honor veterans and their loved ones with final resting places in national shrines and with lasting tributes that commemorate their service and sacrifice to our nation."

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