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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Supporting our troops, part 12

Andrew Cutraro for The New York Times

Dawanna Kimble with her four children and a
photograph of her late husband, Dexter. From
left are Estevan, 12, Raiya, 7, Jojo, 4, and Shakara, 2.
Dexter Kimble, 30, a marine, was killed in Iraq on
Jan. 26, 2005, when his chopper crashed in a sandstorm.

Military Fails Some Widows Over Benefits

Published: June 27, 2006

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.

After Lt. Col. Wren was killed in an auto accident in Iraq in November, Mrs. Wren, with her 1-year-old son, Tyler, in their Lorton, Va., home, had a hard time getting her survivor benefits, partly because the military had his personal information listed all wrong.

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.

Yeah, but there's a flag burning amendment to worry about.Widows suffer but the flag is safe

posted by Steve @ 12:03:00 AM

12:03:00 AM

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