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The Disgrace of War Widows Fighting for Benefits

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Kristen Fenty knows a thing or two about pain and struggle.

Like all Gold Star Wives -- women whose spouses have died or been killed while on active duty in the U.S. military -- she has learned to live with the grief of losing her life partner, the disintegration of the life she imagined and, like so many war widows, the burden of instantly becoming a single parent and shepherding a child through the loss of her father.

What Kristen Fenty didn't expect was six years of getting raked over bureaucratic coals in simply trying to receive and keep the benefits to which surviving military families are entitled.

Fenty, whose husband Army Lt. Col. Joseph Fenty Jr. was killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan in 2006, is fighting just such a battle and has become an activist on behalf of other surviving military spouses grappling with a system that seems geared toward nickel and diming widows who have already sacrificed so much.

"It was a very difficult time," Fenty said of the time immediately after Joe was killed. "And I had just had a baby 28 days before my husband's death."

At issue is a byzantine parsing of government programs that essentially eliminates one survivor's benefit for another, despite the distinct purpose of each and their origin in entirely separate entities. Specifically, Fenty and Gold Star Wives are fighting a government practice that offsets payments from the Defense Department's Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) -- a survivor benefit collected through death in service or purchased through post-retirement premium payments -- with the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) death benefit, paid by the Department of Veterans Affairs to spouses who have lost a husband or wife at war.

What Fenty and so many others have discovered is that, according to the U.S. government, receiving payments from both programs constitutes a kind of double-dipping and that a dollar-for-dollar offset must take place to prevent that.

To civilians, this is analogous to someone telling us after losing our spouse that we can have his or her retirement money or their life insurance -- but not both. Of course, this would be considered an outrage and an earned-benefits rip-off, but for military families, this evidently makes complete sense to the government.

About 60,000 Americans are eligible for both benefits and many are affected by these offsets, which are sadly known as the 'Widow's Tax."

"It's very hard for the military community to look at survivors," said Fenty, who lives in Virginia with her 6-year-old daughter. "And the attitude might be, 'well, this person's grief-stricken and feels like they're not getting what they should get' -- and they aren't because they don't have their spouse."

"I don't think folks realize that it is a very real situation for the surviving families. It is an injustice and an insult and in no way says that we honor the service of the dead."

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And the ramifications of this income being in peril go off in many directions including often leaving the surviving spouse with no retirement money whatsoever. As Fenty points out, the many times that military families move limits the extent to which the civilian spouse can stay employed at the same company, grow their career and achieve a separate retirement nest egg.

"I moved 16 times in 19 years," she said. "I'm a professional with two master's degrees. I'm not the typical, but I had to bottom-rung my employment every time I moved. Nobody's earning a retirement or getting vested in a plan when you're moving around that often. So your spouse's retirement is your retirement."

Fenty first became aware that this was going to be an unexpected financial problem for her "immediately ... within a few weeks" of her husband's death. And while dealing with the reality of ongoing finances is not uncommon among people who have lost a spouse in any walk of life, what made Fenty's situation especially stressful was being forced to make financial decisions with a lifelong impact very quickly after the shock of her husband's death.

"You're talking to a widow who has just lost her spouse and you're asking me to make immediate decisions that are going to impact my financial future and my ability raise my child."

Fenty and Gold Star Wives have been active in Washington, including a two-day "Color The Hill Gold" trip to Capitol Hill last month to urge lawmakers to support pending legislation in both houses of Congress that would end the offsets. Those bills, S. 260 in the Senate and H.R. 178 in the House, would eliminate the Widow's Tax and other unfair financial hardships on surviving military families.

So, while the issue is certainly not being ignored entirely by Congress, it's difficult to describe the action being taken as anything but tepid, despite the fact that a strong bipartisan coalition of people usually at odds over almost everything agrees that a change is necessary.

"This is a matter of simple fairness," said Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), an initial cosponsor of the Senate bill introduced by Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) last year. "Military retirees pay for the Survivor Benefit Plan with their premiums and for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation with their lives. If they do both, it is grossly unfair to penalize their survivors."

The people who agree that these bills should pass illustrate the sheer magnitude of what a legislative no-brainer this should be. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) -- one of the Senate's most conservative members and someone inclined to disagree with Boxer on everything from climate change to what day of the week it is -- also strongly supports eliminating the offsets.

"The spouses and dependents who survive our warriors have earned every penny and should receive the full value of SBP and DIC without any offset," Inhofe said when endorsing the Senate bill in 2011. "Military families continue to make incredible sacrifices on behalf of our nation's freedom and it is time we give back these benefits."

And Republican Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina, who introduced the House version of the legislation, said the government needs to respect the wishes of troops killed in action and see that their families are taken care of in accordance with the benefits selected.

"Military members make necessary arrangements for their spouses to be taken care of in the event of their death," Wilson said. "We owe it to these fallen heroes to carry out their wishes and to ensure their expectations are fully met."

Despite the broad bipartisan group supporting these bills -- there are 188 cosponsors in the House and 50 in the Senate -- the legislation appears mired in committee in both legislative bodies and is getting little or no action.

"It's been introduced with every Congress, I think, at least 10 years back now," Fenty said. "There have been times where there were over 300 cosponsors and still it was not pushed through."

Though it is popular to support all Veterans programs making their way through Congress, the political advantage in a big election year is cutting spending and, especially among Republicans, avoiding like the plague any initiatives that increase spending. It is an ugly political calculus taking into account that, in absolute numbers, the families of our war dead represent a relatively small constituency.

"We're a very easy group to put to the side. We aren't the constituents of the military advocacy groups," Fenty said.

And the strain on widows like Kristen Fenty is exactly what one would think -- horrible and not being helped by a slow and painful battle to receive earned benefits.

"It's infuriating to think that something my husband earned is not going to his family," she said. "It demeans his service. It adds to the anguish about whether you're making the right decisions and it adds to the terrible thought process of 'if only.' If only my life was the way I thought it was supposed to be -- well, it isn't"

Fenty says that her biggest dollar loss has been not so much in missed benefits but in the additional taxes she's had to pay for years based on the offset rules and estimates that the Widow's Tax has cost her roughly $45,000.

While Fenty takes some solace in the many commemorations on behalf of her husband -- Fenty Hall at New York's Fort Drum was named after Joe in 2008 and a classroom in his name will be dedicated at Fort Benning in Georgia this summer -- they don't take the sting out of the ongoing battle her family and others are waging to simply get the benefits their war dead have earned.

"Several places have been named after Joe," she said. "But not every soldier has a hall or a building named after them and they have all earned a portion of a retirement and that ought to be paid to honor their service."

It's a difficult balance, this fighting for what's right, for one benefit earned by Joe's toil and the other by his blood and struggling for the equilibrium that best serves her husband's memory and her life, here and now. And then there's the part that's just for her and her little girl, the healing, finding calm and moving on that must take place. Kristen Fenty has found that while she still has the fire in her to hound legislators and mobilize others to action, she also realizes there will be a finite amount she can do and her life must be about something larger. She needs to find peace for her and a young child, who never met her father and was born less than a month before his death.

"I think that between three and five years is when young survivors typically turn away from advocacy," Fenty said with a sigh. "Not because it doesn't kill them that it's not getting changed but because it is killing them that it's not getting changed."

"I've hit a point where I can suffer over what we don't have or be joyful in what I do have. I have to put my eyes on what's important in this life and that's having the best life I can with my daughter."

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Please make your voice heard with your Congressional representatives on this issue. You can visit the Two Widows Walking Tall blog to read more and go here to easily let your House Representative know that you support ending the Widow's Tax.