Military Fails Some Widows Over Benefits

By LIZETTE ALVAREZ
Published: June 27, 2006
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/27/us/27benefits.html?th&emc=th

As Holly Wren coped with her 6-month-old son and the sorrow of losing her husband in Iraq last November, she assumed that the military's sense of structure and order would apply in death as it had in life.

Instead she encountered numerous hurdles in trying to collect survivor benefits. She received only half the amount owed her for housing because her husband, one of the highest ranking soldiers to die in Iraq, was listed as single, childless and living in Florida wrong on every count. Lt. Col. Thomas Wren was married, with five children, and living in Northern Virginia.

She waited months for her husband's retirement money and more than two weeks for his death benefit, meant to arrive within days. And then Mrs. Wren went to court to become her son's legal guardian because no one had told her husband that a minor cannot be a beneficiary. "You are a number, and your husband is a number" said Mrs. Wren, who ultimately asked her congressman for help. "They need to understand that we are more than that."

For military widows, many of them young, stay-at-home mothers, the shock of losing a husband is often followed by the confounding task of untangling a collection of benefits from assorted bureaucracies.

While the process runs smoothly for many widows, for others it is characterized by lost files, long delays, an avalanche of paperwork, misinformation and gaps in the patchwork of laws governing survivor benefits.

Sometimes it is simply the Pentagon's massive bureaucracy that poses the problem. In other cases, laws exclude widows whose husbands died too early in the war or were killed in training rather than in combat. The result is that scores of families it is impossible to know how many lose out on money and benefits that they expected to receive or believed they were owed, say widows, advocates and legislators.

"Why do we want to draw arbitrary and capricious lines that exclude widows?" asked Senator Mike DeWine, an Ohio Republican, who has sponsored legislation to close some of the legal loopholes that penalize widows. "It seems to me we ought to err on the side of compassion for families."

Mr. DeWine said Congress sometimes passes these loopholes without considering the ramifications. But money also plays a large factor, and Congress is sometimes compelled to keep down costs associated with the war. "That's what you hear behind the scenes," Senator DeWine said.

The Army is also trying to address the problem, for example, with new call centers intended to help survivors navigate the bewildering bureaucracy. "As we always have, we constantly re-evaluate how we conduct our business to see if we can improve," said Col. Mary Torgersen, director of the Army casualty affairs operations center.

But legislators and advocates working with widows say the problems are often systemic, involving payouts by the mammoth Department of Defense accounting office and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

A few widows simply fall through the cracks altogether. The consequences are hard felt: they run up credit card bills, move in with relatives to save money, pull their children from private schools, spend money on lawyers or dedicate countless frustrating hours to unraveling the mix-ups.

"We have had more of these cases than I wish to know," said Ann G. Knowles, president of the National Association of County Veterans Service Officers, which helps veterans and widows with their claims.

The Department of Defense offers widows a range of benefits, including retirement security money, health care, life insurance payouts and a $100,000 death gratuity. The Department of Veterans Affairs allocates a minimum $1,033 monthly stipend and temporary transition assistance, among other things. Widows also receive money from the Social Security Administration.

But a benefit is only as valuable as a widow's ability to claim it. Just days after her husband was killed in Iraq by a roadside bomb, Laura Youngblood, who was pregnant with their second child, got another piece of sobering news from the Navy: Her mother-in-law, who had been estranged from the family for several years, would be receiving half of her husband's $400,000 life insurance payment.

Nearly a year later, Mrs. Youngblood, 27, is still trying to persuade the Navy that the military's accounting department lost her husband's 2004 insurance form naming her and her son as co-beneficiaries, along with the rest of his pre-deployment paperwork. The only forms the Navy can find are from 2003, listing an old address for her husband, Travis, an incorrect rank and no dependents.

The military paperwork was in such disarray, Mrs. Youngblood said, that her husband went months without combat pay and family separation pay because the defense accounting service did not realize he was in Iraq, where he was detached to a Marine Corps unit.

When the Navy said there was nothing it could do, the Marine Inspector General's office stepped in to investigate, forwarding findings to the Navy Inspector General's office. "These were my husband's dying wishes: to take care of his children," said Mrs. Youngblood, who has hired a lawyer to help her. "You honor his wishes. That's his blood money."

Congress has won plaudits in the past two years for increasing the payment after a soldier's death from $12,420 to $100,000 and upping the life insurance payout from $250,000 to $400,000. It made available to some recent widows a retirement income benefit for free. Congress has also paved the way for more generous health and housing benefits. Adding to that, numerous states have recently introduced free college tuition and property tax savings.

"Since 9/11, the demands on survivors are greater and they are getting much more in benefits," said Brad Snyder, the president of Armed Forces Services Corporation, which helps survivors with benefits. "The expectations of what we had in Vietnam were much lower."

But to the widows, some of whom adapted their lives to conform to the military, following their husbands from place to place, the complications can sting. Jennifer McCollum, 32, who was raised on bases and whose husband, Capt. Dan McCollum, a Marine Corps pilot, died in 2002 when his plane crashed in Pakistan, has been busy lobbying Congress to reverse gaps in the law that penalize some widows financially simply because of when their husbands died.

"The president, whom I support, said in the State of the Union address that he would not forget the families of the fallen," she said. "Why have I had to go to D.C. five times this year?"

Gaps in the Laws

Hundreds of widows are denied thousands of dollars in benefits because of arbitrary cut-off dates in the law. The family of a soldier who was killed in October 2003 receives less money than the family of a soldier who was killed in October 2005. "It is shameful that the government and Congress do not deliver the survivor benefits equally to all our widows with the same compassion and precision the military presents the folded flag at the grave," said Edie Smith, a leader of the Gold Star Wives of America, a group of 10,000 military widows that lobbies Congress and the Pentagon.

Shauna Moore was tending to her newborn, Hannah, on Feb. 21, 2003, when she learned that her husband, Sgt. Benjamin Moore, 25, had been shot during a rifle training exercise at Fort Hood, Tex. Months later, after her grief began to subside, she noticed that she was not entitled to the same retirement benefits as more recent widows with children.

Congress allowed certain widows to sign over to their children their husband's retirement benefit, sidestepping a steep so-called military widow's tax. But the law applies only to the widows of service members who died after Nov. 23, 2003. Mrs. Moore is one of an estimated 430 spouses with children who are ineligible.

If that option were available to Mrs. Moore, she would collect an extra $10,000 a year until Hannah became an adult.

"It makes a difference, if you are a single mom," she said.

Last week, the Senate approved Senator DeWine's measure that would extend the benefit to widows whose husbands died as far back as Oct. 7, 2001, the start of the war in Afghanistan. The House did not approve a similar measure, which is tucked into the Senate Defense Authorization bill, so now the issue must be resolved in negotiations.

Hundreds of widows also fail to qualify for a monthly payment of $250 in transition assistance, from the Department of Veterans Affairs, paid to help children for two years after their father's death. It applies only to those spouses whose husbands died after Feb. 1, 2005. Those who lost husbands before February 2003 received nothing because their transition is presumably over, and those who were widowed from 2003 to 2005 received a smaller amount.

Congress has closed some glaring gaps in laws, including one that excluded many families from the $100,000 death benefit and the $400,000 insurance payout because the soldiers' deaths were not combat-related. The outcry forced Congress last year to include all active-duty deaths since Oct. 7, 2001, in those benefits.

The Long Wait

Even good intentions demand patience. A much-upgraded health care benefit to help the children of service members who died on active duty has yet to be implemented after 18 months because the new regulations have not been written.

Because Champus/Tricare, the federal insurer for military families, does not recognize the law, widows are still paying out more money for health care, which some can ill afford.

The January 2005 law will greatly improve health care for all children. But Nichole Haycock's severely disabled son, Colten, 13, may not be among them.

Her husband, Sgt. First Class Jeffrey Haycock, 38, died in April 2002 after a run; Army doctors had failed to tell him about a heart condition they had discovered two months before. But because her husband did not die in a combat-related situation, her son was denied admission to a program for the disabled.

As she teeters on the brink of exhaustion, her two other children get short shrift.

"It's been very difficult to care for a child that is this severe by myself," Mrs. Haycock said. "I would love to see my daughter and son in school events. But I can't do those things."

Tricare officials cannot say for sure whether her son will be covered by the 2005 law when the regulations are written. Francine Forestell, the chief of its customer communications division, said federal regulators plan to interpret it as broadly as possible, "but we can't promise anything," she said.

A Lost Life but No Insurance

Few cases are as heartbreaking as the widow who winds up with little or no life insurance money after her husband's death. In many instances, the husband simply neglected to change the beneficiary. Little, if anything, can be done to recoup the money in such a case after it has been paid out, and advocates emphasize that couples must do a better job of educating themselves about benefits at pre-deployment family meetings.

But in some cases, widows said that they had done their jobs, had double-checked the paperwork and something still went wrong.

Staff Sgt. Dexter Kimble, 30, a marine, was killed Jan. 26, 2005, when his chopper crashed in an Iraqi sandstorm. It was his third deployment. Before he left, he redid all his deployment paperwork, after consulting with his wife, Dawanna. She noticed that the life insurance form on file still had designated his mother as a co-beneficiary.

"I said, 'What is this? Because I just had baby number four,' " Mrs. Kimble said. "He had not added baby number four to the paperwork, either. He said, 'Don't worry. I'm switching that and making you the sole beneficiary.' "

After his funeral, Mrs. Kimble said her casualty assistance officer informed her that her husband's paperwork had not been filed on time. The system had processed the 2001 form, and her mother-in-law had received half the $400,000. Her casualty officer offered to call her mother-in-law and explain what had happened.

"I assumed it wouldn't be a question of if," Mrs. Kimble said about the money, "but when."

Mrs. Kimble, who lives in Southern California, did not get any money from her mother-in-law. She received $300,000 the death benefit and half of the insurance money but used a chunk to help pay her extended family's way to the burial and to pay off the car and other debts. Maj. Jason Johnston, a public affairs officer for the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, said the corps processed what it had. "I'm not saying the system is infallible," he said. "Anything is possible.

"If the Marine tells the spouse one thing and does another," he added, "that is very unfortunate. But we have to go by what the marine puts in the system."

Mrs. Kimble has taken a dead-end job in San Diego and is worried about the future. To get to work, she gets up at 4 a.m. She pulled one child out of private school. She left her home and is living with her children in a friend's empty house. She is also paying for child care for four children.

Lawrence Kelly, a lawyer who is representing Mrs. Youngblood and Mrs. Kimble, said the problem is not unlike that confronted by thousands of soldiers who have recently faced mistakes in their pay made by the military's mammoth accounting office. "Same system, same bureaucracy, same results," he said.

Responding to concerns from widows, Congress last year passed a law stating that if there is a change in the beneficiary or in the amount of the insurance, a spouse must be notified. But the law left a major loophole: If a service member makes no change in his beneficiary after he marries if his mother or father were originally named and he did not change it his wife does not have to be notified.

"It has left me frustrated and very bitter," Mrs. Kimble said. "We have already sacrificed our husbands. Our children are fatherless. For them to struggle financially is another blow."