Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., speaks to the media during a news conference in January. Gillibrand is the new chairwoman of the Senate Armed Services Committee subcommitee on personnel. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)
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Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a fierce advocate for same-sex couple benefits in the military, was appointed Tuesday as the new chairwoman of the Senate panel overseeing military personnel policy and compensation issues.
Gillibrand, who served on the House Armed Services Committee before she was appointed to the Senate in 2008, was one of the senators pushing hardest for repeal of the old Clinton-era "don't ask, don't tell' policy that restricted service by homosexuals.
The 46-year-old lawyer also was active in pressing the Defense Department to improve its sexual assault prevention policies, and pushed the Veterans Affairs Department to make it easier for veterans who were raped or sexually assaulted while in the military to receive treatment for post-trauma stress and qualify for disability compensation.
Gillibrand succeeds former Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., as head of the Senate Armed Services Committee panel responsible for military and civilian personnel policies, health care, pay and benefits, promotions, deployments and most other career and quality-of-life issues affecting current service members, retirees and their families. Webb did not seek re-election after one six-year term in the Senate.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., an Air Force Reserve colonel, remains ranking minority party member on the personnel subcommittee.
Last week, Gillibrand and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen introduced a military same-sex couple benefits bill named for a New Hampshire Army National Guard member, http://www.armytimes.com/news/2013/02/ap-charlie-morgan-dies-fought-for-same-sex-military-benefits-021213/">Chief Warrant Officer Karen "Charlie" Morgan, who died Feb. 10 of breast cancer. Morgan left a wife, Karen, who is not eligible for survivor benefits as would the surviving spouse of a male soldier.
In a statement issued as she introduced the Charlie Morgan Act, Gillibrand said, "Same-sex partners of military service members should not be denied essential benefits because of who they are. We must ensure that all of our military families who have sacrificed so much have access to the services and treatment they need and deserve."
Under the Charlie Morgan Act, the VA and Defense Department would have to treat same-sex couples as they do other spouses, as long as the marriage is legal.
Gillibrand also is a co-sponsor of the Ruth Moore Act, a bill introduced Feb. 14 that is named for a Navy veteran who spent 23 years fighting for full disability benefits after allegedly being raped — twice — by the same supervisor while stationed in the Azores.
The chief Senate sponsor of the bill is Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana.
The Ruth Moore Act relaxes evidence requirements for providing that a mental health disability is related to an in-service event, something that would help victims like Moore receive benefits in the absence of an official investigation into the alleged assault.
"Too often, our service members find themselves in the fight of their lives not in combat, but in their own ranks, among their own brothers and sisters in an environment that enables sexual assault, and tangled in red tape to get the help they need," Gillibrand said in a statement when that bill was introduced. "We need to do everything in our power to end the scourge of sexual violence in the military, and stand up for victims by ensuring nothing ever stands in the way of getting the help and benefits they desperately need."
The Charlie Morgan Act was referred to the Senate Armed Services Committee, where it falls under the jurisdiction of the subcommittee she now leads. The Ruth Moore Act was referred to the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, where Tester serves.
Gillibrand also has co-sponsored some significant military-personnel bills. For example, she supported a bill to allow military survivors to receive both military and veterans benefits without offset; another measure that required mental health professionals to be embedded in mobilizing Guard and Reserve units; and one of the most sought bills by military retirees: to provide full concurrent receipt of military and veterans disability benefits for those who have earned both.
Gillibrand has supported allowing military families to use tax-free flexible spending accounts, something authorized in law but never implemented by the Defense Department.