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Veterans Clinic Representing Navy Veteran Suing for Benefits, Same-Sex Marriage Recognition

With the help of the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School, Carmen Cardona, a disabled Navy veteran from Norwich, is challenging the denial of her application for spousal disability benefits by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The VA rejected her application in September, citing a federal statute that defines a spouse as “a person of the opposite sex.” Cardona is married to a woman.

On Oct. 13, the clinic filed an appeal on her behalf to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC), the federal court that handles disputes over veterans’ benefits. She is believed to be the first veteran in the nation to demand VA recognition of same-sex marriage.

“I’m proud that I served my country while in the Navy,” said Cardona. “It is important to my wife and me that the government respect my service by acknowledging our marriage, and that we be treated equally.”

“There are approximately one million gay and lesbian veterans in the United States,” said clinic student Sofia Nelson ’13. “Denying Ms. Cardona and her wife benefits earned through military service solely because of their sexual orientation advances no valid government policy.”

Cardona served in the United States Navy for 18 years maintaining aircraft, working in the mess unit, and working as an Admiral’s aide. Soon after her honorable discharge from active service in 2000, she applied for and began receiving disability compensation for carpal-tunnel syndrome that resulted from her service duties. Despite her disability, she works as a corrections officer for the state of Connecticut.

After marrying her longtime partner in 2010, she applied to the VA for spousal benefits, to which legally married disabled veterans are entitled, but her application was denied. Officials at the VA do not dispute Cardona’s disability, nor that she and her wife are legally married under Connecticut law. Instead, they cited a VA statute that, like the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. The clinic students, who began working with Cardona in December 2010, are hoping to convince the CAVC that both the statute, and DOMA, violate their client’s rights.

Cardona and clinic students (L-R) Sam Lim, Sofia Nelson, and Melissa Ader take questions from reporters at a press conference on Oct. 13.

“The students have done a terrific job so far, and I look forward to their arguments before the CAVC,” said clinic supervisor and Clinical Professor Mike Wishnie ’93. “We very much hope the court will agree that discrimination against disabled veterans based on whom they marry is flatly unconstitutional.”

“I’m proud of Carmen for taking on this burden for herself and other veterans,” added Nelson. “It speaks to her character and that of all the other civil rights plaintiffs who stand up and demand to be treated equally.”

In addition to Nelson, the other clinic students working on the case are Melissa Ader ’12 and Sam Lim ’13.

The Veterans Legal Services Clinic was founded in 2010 by Professor Wishnie to train students to address the needs of Connecticut’s military veterans, many of whom face significant obstacles in securing disability or pension benefits or obtaining discharge upgrades. The students represent veterans and veterans’ organizations in a wide variety of litigation and non-litigation matters related to the veteran’s military service or return to civilian life.