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Fort Irwin backtracks on denying retreat for same-sex couple

Nov. 22, 2013 - 05:32PM   |  
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After a married same-sex couple at Fort Irwin, Calif., claimed a chaplain banned them from an Army marriage enrichment program because of their sexual orientation, post officials said they were scrambling to accommodate the couple.

Fort Irwin officials said Nov. 22 they are seeking a chaplain from outside the isolated post to lead a “Strong Bonds” retreat that could accommodate couples regardless of their sexual orientation. The religious beliefs of the chaplain originally set to lead the retreat did not permit him or her to provide services to same-sex couples.

The post’s news statement came a day after Shakera Leigh Halford said her wife, a soldier at the post, approached a chaplain at Fort Irwin through a coworker about participating in a “Strong Bonds” retreat at the base but was told the couple is “ineligible” because of their sexual orientation.

“That’s not fair,” Halford, 28, told Army Times. “Even though it’s a same-sex marriage, we have the same issues as other couples. What are we supposed to do, just suffer and try to figure out our issues on our own? What are we supposed to do? It’s just very upsetting.”

Halford recently joined her wife at the post, which is home to the National Training Center and located in the Mojave Desert. She was looking forward to accessing government-provided counseling and other resources as a couple, she said, but when they asked on Nov. 19 about the couples retreat in mid-December, the message was wait until the leader is replaced by a more accommodating chaplain in a few months.

“It came from a co-worker, but it was very clear, we were definitely not allowed to go because we are same-sex,” Halford said.

Strong Bonds is a unit-based, chaplain-led program aimed at building family resiliency. The Southern Baptist Convention, which provides the largest share of active-duty military chaplains, has barred members from taking part in weddings, counseling sessions and couples retreats for same-sex couples. Similar restrictions apply to Roman Catholic chaplains.

Southern Baptist chaplains in violation of these restrictions will be subject to removal of their endorsement, by order of the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Advocates for the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender community say Halford’s case highlights a larger problem for the Defense Department unless it resolves the conflict between gay and lesbian troops and the chaplains who refuse to serve them.

“The question is, ‘What is the Defense Department going to do to secure the rights of LGBT soldiers when it conflicts with the chaplain endorsing agencies?’” said Chris Rowzee, a spokeswoman for the American Military Partner Association, which is representing Halford.

Rowzee said the restrictions on chaplains place them in danger of shirking their obligation to provide for the faith needs of all soldiers.

Stephen Peters, president of AMPA, said the organization has received reports from its members stationed in Hawaii and at Fort Bragg, N.C., who have been denied participation in the retreats without the Army making alternative arrangements for them—which Peters called, “completely unacceptable.”

“The military policy in place currently surrounding this issue smacks of the civil rights era ‘separate but equal’ mentality, which we all know was not equal and was discriminatory,” Peters said. “Additionally, it is clear that even the discriminatory policy in place is not being followed and is not working. It is leaving our modern military families without the necessary support they need to overcome the challenges associated with military life.”

Pamela Portland, an Army spokeswoman at Fort Irwin, said in a statement the post’s remote location and limited pool of chaplains “created a temporary situation where same-sex married couples could not currently be supported with internal assets, so the command and the chaplains acted immediately.”

NTC commander Brig. Gen. Ted Martin has directed his command chaplain to bring in a chaplain for a temporary duty assignment to lead the retreat. Martin met with three affected couples to offer reassurance the command was working to provide them the same access as same-sex couples, according to Portland.

Portland said same-sex couples could be accommodated at a separate retreat offered in San Diego in December and January.

Halford said that as of Nov. 22, Fort Irwin officials had yet to call or meet with either spouse about a solution.

“Nobody contacted her to meet with us,” Halford said of her wife. “I feel like we have to fight for something that should be readily available. I just don’t think it’s fair.”

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