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War Widows Call for Support

Correction Appended

When David Stanley enlisted in the U.S. Army, he assumed that Uncle Sam would take good care of his wife and two children if he were to die on the job. Seventeen months after his death, his widow claims that the government isn’t holding up its end of the bargain.

The government “short-handed my husband,” Stanley’s widow, Kristy, said.

Kristy Stanley, a member of the war-widow organization Gold Star Wives of America, was one of more than a dozen women who spent Wednesday lobbying Congress to demand increased spousal benefits.

“President Obama said … that we are going to honor our commitment to our servicemen — why are the widows different?” Margaret McCloud said shortly before testifying in front of a House panel. Her husband died in the Iraq War.

McCloud spoke in support of legislation offered by Reps. Solomon Ortiz (D-Texas) and Henry Brown (R-S.C.) that will allow widows to fully collect both from the Department of Defense’s Survivor Benefit Plan and the Veterans Affairs Department’s Dependency and Indemnity Compensation.

Currently, widows or widowers whose spouses died of service-related causes receive money from the SBP — a military version of life insurance — that their spouses paid into during their lifetime. The spouses are also entitled to Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, but under current law survivors who are collecting both the DIC benefit and the SBP will face a corresponding cut in the SBP payment. In essence, the pay to some 54,000 widows could be cut by as much as $1,000 a month.

“One thousand dollars a month may not seem like a lot in Washington, but $1,000 a month in Kentucky and Tennessee is going to put food on the table and put roofs over their heads,” McCloud said. “My goodness, our husbands fought and died for our country and we have women on food stamps? That’s unconscionable.”

McCloud, whose husband died in a December 2006 helicopter crash in Iraq, was flanked by more than a dozen other widows dressed in gold as she addressed the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel. The widows were quick to clarify that their anger is not about the money itself, but about the fact that they feel their families are being robbed of something that is rightfully theirs.

“It’s something my husband deserves and he earned it,” Stanley said before the hearing. “It’s an ethical issue when you’re not paying something a soldier earned.”

Stanley lost her husband on Sept. 11, 2007, when a test flight he was on crashed in Alabama. She was left to care for their two children on her own.

“When all the fog of grief starts to clear away is when you start seeing things like this and understanding what your benefits mean to you and your soldier,” she said.

While she isn’t certain that the offset is intentional, Stanley does think it is a way for the Department of Defense to “make ends meet” when it comes to funding and resources. Still, she feels that her husband is being cheated out of benefits that he earned.

“This should just be so simple for us,” she said. “We’re Americans; we’re supposed to have this dedication to our soldiers.”

Through the struggle to recoup her benefits, Stanley said she has found comfort in being with the other widows who make up the Gold Star Wives of America. Widow Stephanie Dostie found herself in a similar situation when her husband died in December 2004. She was so overcome with grief that she stayed in her home for a year. She said she was inspired to move forward in her life and to join the Gold Star Wives because of her husband’s motto that you should leave things better than the way you found them. Since joining the organization, she said she has found the other widows to be incredibly supportive.

“The biggest thing for us is that we’re there for each other,” Dostie said. “I never thought at 31 that I’d be a widow. That’s just not what I had planned out. We’ve just got to keep working ourselves to make it better for the next generation.”

Through their lobbying efforts, the Gold Star Wives have found a few friends in Congress, including Subcommittee on Military Personnel ranking member Joe Wilson (R-S.C.). Wilson, who has four sons serving in the armed services, is no stranger to the plight of the military family. In fact, McCloud’s husband served as a Marine fellow in the Congressman’s office before his death.

“He is a hero of mine,” Wilson said, adding that he had a picture of McCloud hanging in his office.

While some Members have been slow to support the widows, the women added that others have been supportive, namely Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.).

That kind of support was what motivated them to testify Wednesday. “You never want that day to come when two soldiers have to come to the door of another house. That day is haunting,” Stanley said, glassy-eyed. “You may not be able to prevent the death, but you can prevent the struggle after.”

Correction: Feb. 27, 2009

The article misstated which department offers Dependency and Indemnity Compensation. It is the Veterans Affairs Department.

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