Gay Navy veteran’s widower fights for benefits in historic appeal

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11/11/2021

Navy veteran Rhett Chalk was rendered quadriplegic on Thanksgiving Day in 2003 after his knee — which he severely impaired while serving in Vietnam — gave out, causing him to suffer a life-changing spinal injury. At the time, Chalk had been with his partner, Lawrence Vilord, for roughly 26 years. However, Vilord was barred from riding alongside Chalk in the ambulance or from consulting with his doctors because he was not his legal spouse or family member. But that day, Vilord became the one who would care for Chalk until the veteran died in June 2020. “Practically every night when I gave him a shower, religiously every night, he would say to me, without a doubt, ‘Thank God I have you in my life’ because he says ‘I would never have been able to survive; you’ve been my Rock of Gibraltar,'” Vilord, 77, told NBC News. So when he was denied the full amount of enhanced Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) benefits — which are granted to surviving spouses of disabled veterans — by the Department of Veterans Affairs last November, he said it frustrated him “to the point of no return.” “It was just another nail in the coffin. It was another nail in my heart,” Vilord said. “It was just another thing to delegitimize who I was and who he was.” He qualified for the VA’s standard Dependency and Indemnity Compensation benefits for surviving spouses, which amounts to $1,300 a month. Vilord and Chalk married in 2017 after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage nationally in 2015. However, because the pair were not married for at least eight years, Vilord was denied last October the VA’s enhanced benefits for survivors of certain veterans who are declared totally disabled at the time of death, for which Chalk qualified. The benefits would grant Vilord another $280 per month. Vilord appealed his denial before the VA and in federal court last week, arguing that the rule effectively disqualifies all same-sex couples in nearly every state, including in his home state of Florida.

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