Gold Star Wives aren’t gold-diggers. This is how it works out these days, financially.
$500K seems like a lot — and can be a bit like hitting the unlucky lottery — and everyone knows it.
By Tracey Koehlmoos
Best Defense guest columnist
When my husband died, like the wife of most active duty soldiers I received $100K in death gratuity within 72 hours. It felt like someone handing me an umbrella when it was hailing bricks.
In the horror of my husband’s death I also recognized that there would never be another paycheck and I accurately sensed that there would be many expenses in those first months. The $400K in SGLI came several months later. As his wife, I was also his selected beneficiary. Not every wife receives this money. Sometimes a service member will select another beneficiary. This $500K seems like a lot — and can be a bit like hitting the unlucky lottery — and everyone knows it. Sometimes people come out of the woodwork capitalizing on the grief and the money.
The Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) and the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) are monthly payments. The first is from the Department of Defense (DoD) and the second is from the Veterans Administration. The SBP is 55% of the service member’s retirement pay would have been based on the 100% disabled, at the highest three years of rank. The DIC is a set amount about $1254.19 per month. It is a dollar for dollar reduction of DIC from the SBP. The Gold Star Wives are among the last group of people who have an offset from their DoD benefits by their VA benefits.
Think of it in terms of the population of military veterans who exceed VA 50% disability who are eligible for military retirement pay. These veterans — who are not dead and can still work… get their full retirement plus their VA benefit. Widow’s benefits are based on the calculation of the 100 percent disabled. The group of Post 9-11 widows is asking for the full SBP plus the full VA benefit.
For most Post 9-11 widows, the DIC outweighs the SBP, so that the DoD is off the hook completely for payment to that service member’s family. The surviving spouses of Service Members who die on active duty and 100 percent service connected disabled Service Members were left behind in 2003 when concurrent pay legislation was passed. The widows did not have the same strong voice as the other Veteran and Military organizations that primarily represent their own members.
For people who know me and think I am typical, please know that in so many ways I am a poor representative of military widows. My husband was a colonel — making me older, more experienced, and more financially stable. When the boys were babies, I went back to school for a masters degree and left a few years later with a doctorate. While serving at an overseas posting, I was recruited off the tennis court to a job that became a life changing career opportunity with tremendous mentors. The boys were miraculously already becoming decent young men: Eagle Scouts, varsity athletes, honor students.
The outcome being that when my husband died, while there was unbelievable pain and massive confusion, an inner-reserve of resilience built on this strong foundation meant that I could look those boys in the face and say, “This is horrible, we will miss him forever, but we are going to be fine.” I told them to focus on homework and sports and I focused on not looking as whacked out as I felt.
With a strong network of family, friends and a lot of prayers, it seems that we have been carried through on a Sea of Grace. While I feel totally adrift and struggle to make a plan, I truly believe that the Lord has lit the path before me one step at a time. I had to manage an international move, I had to find a place to live in the US, I had to buy a car, I was unemployed and had to find a job, I had to help get those boys through high school and into college, and I have a pervasively broken heart. For as well-prepared as I was, I struggled and continue to struggle. I continue to worry that this well of resilience will evaporate. What then?
Most of my widowed-sisters are not so well positioned. I look around at many widows who I meet–and it is not encouraging. They are so young. Most women are high school diploma holders with a young child or two and struggling to manage a broken heart. The new widow may not be prepared to go to work the next month or even for years…and may not earn enough to make it worth paying for the exorbitant cost of child care. Further, many go through years of unsettledness and many have children who fill the void with bad behaviors. The real risk is that a single tragedy may become an intergenerational calamity.
Like me, many do not really have a place that they call home — they joined the military family when they married their soldier. I know that a large number of widows remain near military installations. It is a half life but at least you can use the commissary and take the boys to the barber on post.
The last bit I will add is widows want the SBP, they want the full amount from the DoD that was earned by the widow and her beloved, as a team. They want the connection to the service. It is financial, of course, but also emotional. When your military spouse dies, you lose membership in your military community and are kicked out of your home. Whatever life you had is finished and you have to build a new life. It is gut wrenching. The SBP represents the commitment the DoD made to the soldier being continued to the family. Removing the DIC offset would add a life changing $1254.19 a month to these struggling households.
I personally look with great anticipation to the forthcoming results of the DoD-funded, groundbreaking research being conducted by Dr. Steve Cozza of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. Dr. Cozza’s National Bereavement Study is poised to tell us more about the status of surviving families.
Anecdotally I suspect the picture is not good as it is a population unified in suffering. I want to know the track to being fine and how the boys and I can have enduring resilience. For many families the DIC on top of the SBP would make a great deal of difference and help to lift and keep those widows out of poverty.
Dr. Tracey Perez Koehlmoos serves as the Director of Health Services Administration Division and Associate Professor at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. She is the President of the Arlington chapter of Gold Star Wives of America. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions of the Gold Star Wives of America, the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, the Department of Defense or any other agency.
Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1
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