Kristen Fenty and Siobhan Esposito are widows whose husbands were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and they're on a couple of missions. One is a serious legislative issue for people in Congress and the other is a simple request -- and an incredibly offensive thing for them to have to mention -- that they be treated with appropriate sensitivity and respect when they visit our representatives.
And they couldn't be more right on both.
First the tough one for those in Congress: You need to get rid of the "Widow's Tax", that arcane set of rules that provides an offset of one survivor's benefit for another and effectively rips off the women who have lost husbands in service to our country. It may be a bit tedious in its legislative incarnation, but in spirit the issue should be so simple to support -- if someone has given their life for our country, the least we should do is not withhold earned benefits from their surviving spouses.
Good grief, even two Senators from the oil-and-water wing of bipartisanship, Democrat Barbara Boxer of California and Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe, agree that the Widow's Tax must go. Boxer calls its elimination "a matter of simple fairness" and Inhofe says "military families continue to make incredible sacrifices on behalf of our nation's freedom and it is time we give back these benefits."
And here's the really easy one: If you're not going to give a rat's behind about what Gold Star Wives have to say when they come to visit your offices, at least have the spine to just tell them that and teach your staffers some basic social skills when dealing with constituents.
Fenty and Esposito have made at least two trips to Capitol Hill this year to drum up support for these bills and the treatment they are getting from elected representatives and Congressional staff runs the gamut from "tell them I'm not here" to brain-dead staffers chirping "have a happy Memorial Day" to two women whose husbands are the subject of that holiday -- because they died.
"When we went into some of the offices, when we left, they told us 'have a happy Memorial Day,'" said Esposito. "And I found that... jarring. I found it jarring because Memorial Day is about honoring those who gave their lives for this country."
Fenty's husband, Army Lt. Col. Joseph Fenty Jr. was killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan in 2006, while Esposito's husband, Army Captain Phillip T. Esposito, died in Iraq in 2005.
In Fenty and Esposito you are dealing with two tough, smart women and they understand that the average American may not have the attention span to discern the difference between Veterans Day and Memorial Day -- or, for the knuckleheads they are encountering in Capitol Hill offices, the difference between the day honoring our war dead and Groundhog Day.
But maybe our Senators and House members could make these distinctions a part of new-hire orientation. Memorial Day is to... memorialize those who gave their lives for our county and are not living any longer. Veterans Day is for celebrating the contribution made by our nation's military... Veterans. In other words, the people we honor in November are still alive and the men and women we remember on the last Monday in May are not.
Memorial Day is a tough, serious holiday. Military families who have lost a loved one don't have a "happy", "fun" or even "nice" Memorial Day.
"When not even our representatives, our senators and their staffs recognize that, it really shows that Memorial Day is lost on America as a nation," said Fenty. "This is about those who have served and died."
"And to be wished a happy Memorial Day or a good weekend when we've been greeted with very boilerplate greetings and not an eye is even blinked when we say we're here the Thursday before Memorial Day because our husbands have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. We don't even get an 'oh, wow' or 'I'm sorry' or 'this must be a tough weekend for you' but 'have a happy weekend' or 'have a happy Memorial Day.'"
Fenty also commented on the number of times they go into offices for meetings, are told that the senator or representative is not there and then find this to be untrue.
"I find it frustrating when I go into offices and you're being screened so clearly," said Fenty. "In one office we were told the senator wasn't there but three phone calls came in to him and they were connected. I don't want to be lied to when I go into an office."
At least the office of Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana was straightforward with the two women, telling them that the Senator understands what military families need on the issue but that it just isn't a priority to this Congress. According to Esposito, she and Fenty were told by Lugar's staff that "military surviving spouses and their families are not a priority."
"[They said] that it's understandably wrong that survivor retirement annuities are not being paid," said Fenty. "But paying them is not a priority and that the money needs to go to other priorities first."
Now that's how you get it done in honestly conveying your indifference. If you truly don't care about the surviving spouses of our war dead, be like Lugar and have the balls to just come right out and say it.
Or you could do some really out-of-the-box thinking, and either take the support-the-troops sticker off your car or actually starting giving a damn about our military families.
Concluded Fenty: "The 'memorial' needs to be put back into Memorial Day, not just on The Mall, not just in neighborhood parades, but in the offices of the leaders who create the laws that govern this country."