War Widows Fight for Full Benefits

President Barack Obama and Rose Lee, 81, of Arlington, Va.. at the Gold Star Widows of America reception in Washington. AP

For a decade, war widows in matching yellow suit jackets and hats quietly and persistently have knocked on Capitol Hill doors seeking an end to the "widows' tax," a government policy that deprives them of benefits from their husbands' military service.

They are always warmly received, but that's where the hospitality ends. Despite pledges of help from scores of federal officials - including President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi - their long quest remains unfulfilled.

Every year since 2005, the Senate has voted to eliminate the policy that denies widows the ability to collect both a military survivor's benefit and the full annuity bought when their military husbands were alive. But in each of those years, the fix was dropped when House and Senate negotiators wrote the final bill in private.

"What we always hear is that there is just no funding for us. 'Sorry, this is not your year,"' said Vivianne Wersel, chairwoman of the Government Relations Committee at Gold Star Wives of America. Her husband died of a heart attack in 2005, days after returning from his second tour in Iraq. "What happens behind closed doors, we get thrown under the bus."

The widows' tax is a law that won't allow surviving spouses to receive the retirement pay due them when their spouse died from a cause related to military service, and at the same time collect the full annuity - essentially an insurance policy most of their spouses opted to buy. They paid an average of 6.5 percent of their retirement pay in premiums, often $100 or more a month.

Because one benefit is subtracted from the other, affected surviving spouses lose about $1,000 a month on average. There are about 54,000 survivors who are affected by the policy, whose spouses served in conflicts from World War II to Afghanistan, and that number could grow.

The widows say politicians have promised time and time again to help them, but they don't.

Part of the problem is the cost. Eliminating the offset in benefits is expensive, said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who has been the widows' longtime ally. Making good on the promise would cost $6.7 billion over a decade.

But knowing the cost hasn't stopped politicians from promising to help.

Pelosi, as House minority leader in 2005, took up the widows' cause as part of the Democrats' GI Bill of Rights, before her party gained control of Congress.

Two years later, Obama, then a senator, co-sponsored legislation to eliminate the offset just before he spoke at a Gold Star Wives reception on Capitol Hill. In his budget proposal to the Congress last week, he didn't include it.

Kimberly Hazelgrove, 36, of Lorton, Va., whose husband died in Iraq in 2004, said she recalls Obama coming to the reception and promising to help them. The 36-year-old mother of two said she's now left wondering what happened to the promise.

"I have yet to see it, after a year in office, that really being a priority for them," said Hazelgrove, who has lobbied on Capitol Hill with her kids, ages 6 and 9, in tow.

Last June, four military widows showed up before 8 a.m. for a House Armed Services Committee session where their issue was on the agenda. Several hours into the hearing, an aide told them the discussion had been pushed back because of its sensitive nature.

At 10:30 p.m., the matter finally came to a vote. By then, Sandra Drew of Herndon, Va., was the only widow still there. Drew, whose husband was killed in Bosnia in 1995, said she was dumbfounded when Democrats who had co-sponsored the legislation in past years voted against it, while Republicans who had once opposed it were supporting it.

She said some committee members sheepishly looked at her as they voted down the provision, "visibly uncomfortable that I was in the room. It went right down party lines, and it shouldn't be a partisan issue."

Steve Strobridge, a retired Air Force colonel who is director of government relations at the Military Officers Association of America, said something could be done for the widows if the political will existed.

"It requires a vote of the entire Congress or a big emphasis of leadership to say we're going to elevate this priority, and as terrible as it seems, taking care of the widows whose military sponsor was killed by service has not been given a high enough priority," he said.

Congress did take the step of recognizing the widows' plight and gave affected survivors $50 more per month starting in 2008.

"We've had a partial victory and eventually we will continue to pound away and get it done," Nelson said.

Wersel said her group is pleased that so far this year they have enlisted more than 300 co-sponsors for their legislation in the House and more than 50 in the Senate, but they are still not confident that means Congress will pass it.

"The whole process has become rhetoric," she said.
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