More pain for war widows

During their worst grief, war widows are at the whim of the notorious military bureaucracy to get survivor benefits.

Published June 27, 2006 8:28PM (EDT)

The fact that the military is a big fumbling bureaucracy isn't exactly news. But the New York Times today published a disturbing look at the burdens it puts on those people who should least have to deal with it -- war widows. Lizette Alvarez tells the shocking stories of recent widows who, while reeling from the loss of their husbands, have to chase down death and survivor benefits and navigate hair-pulling legal snafus, lost files, outrageous delays and bad information. Many learn that they don't qualify for certain benefits because of legal technicalities, such as whether their husbands died before eligibility cutoff dates, or were killed in training instead of combat.

This comes at a time when widows -- many of whom are young, stay-at-home mothers -- must often deal with finding new housing, comforting grieving children and coming to terms with the fact that they are single parents. "A few widows simply fall through the cracks altogether," writes Alvarez. "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."

Alvarez tells the story of one Navy widow who was pregnant with her second child when her husband was killed in Iraq a year ago. After learning that her estranged mother-in-law would receive half of his $400,000 life insurance payment, she is still trying to convince the naval accounting department that it lost his 2004 insurance form, along with other paperwork, which named his wife and child as beneficiaries. (Some widows may lose insurance benefits altogether because their spouses forgot to legally change the beneficiaries before they were deployed.)

In recent years, Congress has recognized the plight of widows by increasing death payments from $12,420 to $100,000 and life insurance payouts from $250,000 to $400,000. That's in addition to better health and housing benefits. Widows, then, should be given all the necessary help to obtain them.

In response, the Army has established call centers to help survivors. But critics say the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs are also to blame. I know money is tight in the military, but perhaps widows could be better served by caseworkers whose sole job is to advocate for them. Not only do they deserve it, but they are owed basic peace of mind during their most difficult days. (See this Broadsheet item on the unrecognized contributions of military wives.) Or perhaps a task force could be charged with streamlining the laws about who gets what and simplifying application procedures. If the government can make filing taxes less painful, surely war widows could get better service.

"You are a number, and your husband is a number" Holly Wren, a mother of five and widow of Lt. Col. Thomas Wren, told the Times about her battle to wrestle benefits, which was so excruciating she had to turn her congressman for help. "They need to understand that we are more than that."

Yes, they do.

By Sarah Elizabeth Richards

Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist based in New York. She can be reached at

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