Published October 14. 2011 4:00AM
Norwich - A disabled Navy veteran who says the government denied her veterans' benefits because she is married to a woman is suing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in what could be the first case of its kind.
Carmen Cardona, of Norwich, applied for an increase in her monthly disability payment after she married her longtime partner in Norwich last year. Severely disabled veterans with dependent spouses are eligible for higher payments, but Cardona's application was denied.
Her legal team from the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School plans to challenge the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, the law that bars federal recognition of same-sex marriages, and the VA's definition of a spouse as a person of the opposite sex, said Sofia Nelson, a law student intern at the legal clinic.
It is believed to be the first time a veteran has sought recognition of same-sex marriage from the VA, as well as the first challenge of the marriage act in the veterans' court of appeals. The marriage act has been challenged in other federal courts nationwide.
The Department of Veterans Affairs' regional office in Hartford initially rejected Cardona's application, citing federal statutes that define a spouse as a person of the opposite sex, according to the legal clinic. An appeals board in Washington, D.C., also denied the application.
Thursday, having exhausted the administrative avenues, the legal clinic filed an appeal on Cardona's behalf with the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, the federal court that hears appeals in veterans' benefit cases.
"I shouldn't be discriminated or be judged by who I am or who I choose to love," Cardona said Thursday.
Cardona said she receives a monthly disability check for the carpal tunnel syndrome in both her hands that developed as a result of her service. She said she would be entitled to an additional $120 a month if the VA recognized her wife as a dependent, but Cardona said her case "is not about the money, it's about civil rights."
Cardona, 45, was born in Puerto Rico and served in the Navy for 18 years. Her last assignment was at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, where she says she prepared meals and served as a building manager. She was honorably discharged in 2000 and now works as a correction officer at the Janet S. York Correctional Institution in Niantic.