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The first time my eyes were really opened in terms of how veterans’ spouses are treated after their husbands die was when I was covering John Kerry’s presidential bid for Newsweek a decade ago. While on that 2004 campaign trail, Kerry told me a revealing story about his best friend, Giles Whitcomb, with whom Kerry went through training before being shipped off to Vietnam. Kerry and Whitcomb spent a good portion of their time during the war on a Swift Boat that patrolled the Mekong Delta.
U.S. forces doused the Delta with Agent Orange, the highly toxic defoliant now scientifically proven to be a carcinogen. This caused great harm to hundreds of thousands of American troops, including Whitcomb, who went on to become a Navy intelligence officer. He then worked for several decades with the United Nations before dying in 2003 of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
This type of cancer, which I have personally been battling since 1996, is one of the cancers that has been directly linked to Agent Orange exposure. But Whitcomb’s widow, Susan Whitcomb, told me that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) did not recognize her husband’s exposure to Agent Orange, thereby allowing the department to refuse benefits that the family had earned through her husband’s service.
That’s when Kerry stepped in. In a letter to VA shortly after Whitcomb’s death, Kerry, who along with Whitcomb was heavily exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, wrote, “I commanded a PCF 94 in the Mekong Delta. I personally observed the spraying of Agent Orange for the purpose of defoliation on many riverbanks in the area. I hereby testify with absolute certainty that Lieutenant Giles Whitcomb and anyone else in that area of operations was definitely exposed to Agent Orange.”
The letter resulted in Whitcomb’s family getting the full veterans’ benefits they’d earned. But of course not every widow has a prominent United States Senator in her corner. What happened to Susan Whitcomb is just an all-too-common example of what can happen to the spouse when a soldier or veteran dies.
Time for Justice for Widows
Sheree Evans, who lives in Ozark, MO, is also the widow of a Vietnam veteran. After her husband, former Marine Edward “Tommy” Evans, died from brain cancer, Sheree told me that, like Susan Whitcomb she argued that her husband’s disease was related to his exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. But she, too, was unsuccessful convincing the VA. Then she hired an attorney and ultimately received more than $100,000 in Dependency Indemnity Compensation (DIC) benefits. DIC benefits are payments made to eligible survivors of military servicemembers who died in the line of duty or of veterans whose death resulted from a service-related injury or disease.
Glenn Bergmann, a partner at Bergmann & Moore, a law firm that aggressively represents widows in cause-of-death claims, especially widows of Vietnam War veterans, told me he was “very honored” to represent Evans in her difficult fight for benefits.
“We were able to identify mistakes made by VA at the court level,” Glenn said, “and then help her develop her claim to show a link between exposure to Agent Orange during service in the Vietnam War and his brain cancer.”
“Now is the time for justice to be served for our war veterans and their widows,” said Sheree, who has written a book set to be published for Veterans Day 2014, titled “By the Grace of God, A Promise Kept.” It details her fight for her VA widow’s benefits. I can’t wait to read it.
What Will Happen Down the Road?
Veterans and their spouses wonder what will happen in the future. Jim Satcher did three tours in Vietnam and was stationed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in 1968 when the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong forces attacked the airbase in one of the first strikes of the infamous Tet Offensive. He was a charismatic radio announcer and entertainer for years.
Now medically retired from the military and a retired business owner, Satcher said he has lived a full and very good life. But he’s worried about what will happen to his wife, Karen Satcher, if –heaven forbid –he passes on. He said that if he dies, she’ll lose approximately $3,900 a month, once all income comes in, which will leave her unable to pay for basic living expenses.
“If I were housebound, the VA would pay (Karen) a stipend to care for me in-lieu-of having a nurse stop by on a daily basis. Karen would receive about $2,000 a month and be housebound, too. So, when I pass, she would lose both $3,900, and $2,000 a month. This program probably saves VA and Congress about $2,000 a month, maybe more, if they had to place me in a care facility,” Satcher says.
“I hear that DIC award letters and initial payments are backed up as much as 12 months, and VA life insurance will take from four to six weeks before the first check is issued,” Satcher told me in an interview. “Congress and the Department of Defense relied on my wife to maintain the home front while I was away at war,” Satcher said, “and to support me when I chose to stay in service, and to care for me when I came home damaged by war, then why does my wife suddenly become expendable the moment this veteran dies?”
One thing’s for certain, Satcher added, “No one will thank my wife for standing by her man when he chose to serve 20 years in the military, and when he went off to war. Has my wife not served her country too? And is she not deserving of your support and entitled to just compensation?”
It Just Isn’t Right
One group that advocates for veterans’ widows and provides financial as well as grief counseling is the Widows of Deceased Veterans Foundation. The organization was founded in 2004 by Daisy Walden, wife of Sergeant Major Richard D. Walden (US Army Retired) after she provided assistance to a deceased veteran’s wife. After the widow visited her local VA office, it was determined that she was not eligible for any VA benefits and she faced losing her home. Walden, through her tenacity, found more than $7,000 needed for this widow to prevent the foreclosure.
Robert Walsh is another veterans widows advocate. An attorney who has represented hundreds of veterans’ widows who have struggled to get their benefits from VA, he tells me that a part of the reason for the disability claims backlog is that widows who are already in the VA system as wives and already getting VA benefits are forced to re-litigate their status as widows to get widows benefits.
“There is no automatic conversion. VA does not contact the widow, confirm they are still alive, and start the benefits process,” said Walsh, who noted that there are two forms of benefits: compensation and pension. DIC is a monetary compensation for the spouses of service connected veterans who die. Dependents may also qualify for Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs (CHAMPVA).
“It is very complex, when it should be simple,” Walsh said. “If Congress says a widow gets $1,200 per month tax free plus CHAMPVA, then that should be a baseline. If a veteran dies and was only getting $835 per month and the spouse did not have CHAMPVA then she should continue at that rate until she or he dies.”
Now all widows are cut off, dropped out of CHAMPVA, which is the healthcare for dependents of veterans who are 100% disabled. Once the veteran dies, the spouse has to re-litigate who they are, Walsh said. “I met a widow whose husband had been 100 percent disabled for over 30 years,” he said. “He died, she was denied DIC and lost her home. It had been 3 years and she still did not have it resolved.”
As Walsh pointed out to me, we generally think of widows as old, but often they are just beginning their adult life. Congress and VA now have it set up so a widow must make a Hobson’s choice. If a young widow takes the $1,100 per month DIC she cannot have the chapter 35 college assistance. And the converse is true. So, Walsh said, “the 25-year-old widow with three small children at home cannot have a few semesters of college assistance and the $1,100 per month. What the heck?”
Another problem is that if a veteran dies with pending claims it is really difficult and confusing to keep the claims going for the widow. Social security is easy. You just file a one-page form and move forward. But as countless people have told me over the years, it is bureaucratic nightmare to continue the claims process with VA once the veteran is no longer alive.
As if veteran’s spouses didn’t already have enough adversity to deal with, states are now trying to save money by denying widows benefits. A new proposed plan in Minnesota would prioritize access to veterans homes based on the level of service and send veteran’s widows to the back of the line. According to Mark Brunswick in the Star Tribune, former prisoners of war, Purple Heart recipients and those with service-connected disability rates of 70- percent and above would be able to jump ahead of other veterans and their spouses when applying for VA nursing home care. Brunswick writes that spouses of veterans, who now have equal access to the state’s five veterans homes on a first-come first-served basis, would be “knocked down in the pecking order.”
Cutbacks in response to sequestration and an estimated 1.2 million new service members moving off active duty will continue to strain benefits, pay and services. Once war is over, veterans and their dependents are easily forgotten. But as the DoD struggles to find ways to downsize, ensuring that war widows have some financial stability isn’t just fair. It is what’s right.