RALEIGH, N.C. - Sgt. Karen Alexander fought for her country in Iraq, but back home she often feels the U.S. Army is fighting against her.
Married to another female soldier with a 4-year-old son, Alexander is denied the same housing allowance and other family-friendly benefits she would be entitled to if married to a man. As far as Uncle Sam is concerned, she's still single.
"I'm married to my best friend, who just happens to be of the same sex as me," said Alexander, 29, who is stationed at Fort Bragg. "We fight for everyone else's rights, but we're treated as second-class citizens."
Nearly a year and half after President Obama and Congress ended "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," same-sex couples are faced with daily reminders of the conflict inherent in serving openly as gays and lesbians under a government that still refuses to acknowledge their relationships.
Pentagon officials say they are bound by the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which forbids the federal government from recognizing any marriage other than that between a man and a woman.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on the constitutionality of DOMA in June, but advocacy groups say there are numerous steps the Pentagon could take now to treat struggling same-sex military couples more fairly.
Among the steps proposed by such advocacy groups as OutServe-Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and the American Military Partner Association are issuing military IDs to same-sex spouses, ensuring spouses have full access to on-base social programs, and letting same-sex couples qualify for military housing.
"Clearly DOMA prevents commanders from truly treating their service members equally, but there is so much they could do to treat them with greater equity," said Allyson Robinson, Outserve-SLDN's executive director. "The fact they choose not to is shocking."
The Defense Department's public response to these proposals hasn't changed over the past year.
"The Department is conducting a deliberative and comprehensive review of the possibility of extending eligibility for benefits, when legally permitted, to same-sex domestic partners," Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen wrote in an e-mail this week. "The benefits are being examined from a policy, fiscal, legal and feasibility perspective."
Almost verbatim, that's the same message conveyed to gay-rights activists in March 2012 by acting Undersecretary of Defense Jo Ann Rooney.
Robinson said it was possible that military leaders were waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on DOMA. If the law is struck down, which is by no means certain, the military would have a clear path to treat married sex-sex couples equally.
"If they're waiting, that in itself is a troubling decision," Robinson said. "For some of these service members, waiting even a few months is an incredible difficulty."
The next step for the activist groups will be putting pressure on Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama's nominee to be the next defense secretary, in hopes that he will take up the cause if he is confirmed.
Hagel, a former Republican senator, has apologized for 1998 remarks referring to an ambassadorial nominee as "openly, aggressively gay" and he pledged this week in a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., to "do everything possible to the extent permissible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our service members."
While the Pentagon brass ponders the issue, Alexander and her wife, Pvt. Allison Hanson, struggle to pay their bills.
The couple met in an Army training program for chemical, biological and nuclear warfare in 2010. They got married last year in Washington, D.C., one of an increasing number places where same-sex marriage is legal.
Despite assurances to the contrary before she transferred, it was only after Alexander reported for duty at Fort Bragg in September the couple learned that post officials would not approve money for off-base housing, even the lesser amount provided to single soldiers with no dependents. Hanson said exceptions are routinely granted to unmarried heterosexual soldiers for various domestic reasons, and that she believes commanders at Bragg have the discretion to do so in Alexander's case if they wanted to.
"I can't live in the barracks with her," said Hanson, a National Guard soldier who lost her job when she followed Alexander to North Carolina.
The couple got a tiny one-bedroom apartment in nearby Fayetteville, where inexpensive housing can be tough to come by. After rent, the payment for their shared car, insurance, utilities and other bills, Alexander's modest enlisted salary provides them less than a $100 a week.
"I don't know if people have this Will and Grace image of how homosexuals live, like we're all rich or something, but that's not the case at all," Alexander said. "We're lucky we're vegetarians, so we don't really spend that much money on food."
Hanson made the agonizing decision to send her son to live with her ex-husband and his new wife in Utah because they cannot afford to care for him.
Beyond pocketbook issues, same-sex couples based at Bragg say they face social stigma.
After returning from a nine-month tour in Afghanistan, 1st Lt. Nakisha Hardy and her civilian wife were invited to attend a retreat at the Pinehurst resort intended to help strengthen relationships that can be strained by long separations. Though Hardy was told in advance that a same-sex couple would be welcome, on the second day they were asked to leave by an Army chaplain.
"He said that the program is funded under DOMA and that we were making other families feel uncomfortable and creating a distraction," Hardy said. "It definitely makes you question whether the culture is changing. People's personal beliefs aren't going to change just because laws do."
Last month, Bragg received national attention when Ashley Broadway, who is married to Lt. Col. Heather Mack, was denied membership in the officers' spouses club because she does not have a spouse identification badge issued by the military.
Though she and Mack have been together for 15 years, the only pass base officials will provide to Broadway names her as a caregiver to their 2-year-old son - the same credential given to nannies.
On Thursday, the club announced they would allow Broadway admittance as a "guest member." She said Friday anything less than full membership is not acceptable.
"It's another slap in the face to my life and that of thousands of gay and lesbian soldiers because it basically it's like, 'Yes, please wear the uniform, please sacrifice, put yourself in harm's way, but, by the way, we're not going to take care of your family or your spouse back home,"' Broadway said.
Alexander and Hanson said change isn't coming fast enough. Although she says she loves military life and always thought she'd serve until retirement, Alexander is now considering leaving the Army she has served for nearly 10 years.
"The Pentagon has the option to change things, right now," Hanson said. "My wife and I both raised our right hands and swore to defend the Constitution. At what point does someone protect our rights?"