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Military widows are celebrating a huge victory in Congress

Trump NDAA 2019 Signing Ceremony (Fort Drum Public Affairs/WikiCommons)

“Did you hear me screaming? … I’m SO happy.”

That was Coronado resident Kathy Soliozy Prout’s reaction to a Congressional action that means military widows may soon get the benefits which she and many others insist they deserve.

For 14 years, Prout — the widow of Navy Rear Adm. James “Jay” Prout, killed when a Navy jet in which he was riding crashed in New Mexico in 1995 — has fought for military widows struggling to make ends meet after the death of their spouse.

In 1972, a measure was taken that penalized widows who qualified concurrently for benefits from two different government programs.

The change took away as much as $15,000 a year in benefits to survivors in instances of military service-related death, either as a veteran or on active duty, if the spouse was enrolled in the Survivor Benefit Plan entitling them to up to 55 percent of their deceased partner’s retirement pay.

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On Monday, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the annual defense bill, passed out of a joint Congressional conference committee with the proposed “widows tax” repeal intact. It was approved by the full House today, and the Senate is expected to pass it next week.

The act calls for a phased-in restoration of the cut benefits over three years beginning in 2021. It’s projected to cost about $5.7 billion over the next decade.

Social media was abuzz with news of the impending change following years of protest by veterans groups, widows and others.

Heather Prout Patino praised her mother’s tireless work to eliminate the so-called tax on widows.

“Talk about a grassroots leader — she has organized over 2,000 surviving spouses to work on this cause,” Patino noted on Facebook. “Daily, she is emailing, writing, calling, tweeting and talking to congressmen and women, our senators and their staffers. Every year, she goes to D.C. to walk miles on the halls of Congress to educate them on this injustice. Talk about perseverance.”

Prout would be the first to tell you it was a team effort — an effort that could finally pay off for up to 65,000 affected survivors.

Kimberly Hazelgrove,of Amherst, Ohio, who lost her husband in a helicopter crash in Iraq in 2004, said: “It’s about time. No more savings, no more retirement left, 15 years without the benefit of Brian’s earned income to support us and raise the kids.” Her family’s loss of $1,200 a month over 15 years amounts to about $225,000 in lost benefits.

“People paid premiums out of their retirement pay to get those benefits for their surviving spouse. It’s not our benefit. It’s our deceased service member’s benefit that they earned that the government stripped away. That would not be allowed in a civil environment,” she said.

As a single parent, Hazelgrove had to quit her own military career to take care of the children. “It was always a struggle to make the money last. It really has hurt my family and many others over the years.”

Like Prout, Hazelgrove visited Capitol Hill to talk to legislators and even met with V.P. Mike Pence in 2017, who, as a congressman, had announced Brian’s death in the House.

“Even though our family will not see the full benefit of this for three more years, I am just happy that maybe I can give a little more to our kids in their adult lives for the loss they suffered for all these years.”

Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., who worked diligently in the Senate to get backing for the measure, called Monday’s joint committee action “one big step closer to finally repealing this unjust law and fulfilling our commitment to the military families who have sacrificed so much.”

It also was praised by leaders of the 350,000-member Military Officers Association of America and the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS).

Candace Wheeler, TAPS policy director, was extremely pleased by the House approval of the NDAA today. “We look forward to the Senate passing it as well and to the president signing it into law. After four decades of waiting, 65,000 surviving spouses will finally receive their service members’ earned benefits.”

Prout bristles at the “widows tax” label because it gives the impression that spouses are getting away with not paying taxes on benefits.

The Survivors Benefit Plan (SBP) is an optional insurance program administered by the Department of Defense. Upon retirement, veterans can choose to have 6.5 percent deducted from retirement paychecks so, upon their service-related deaths, their spouses will receive up to 55 percent of their retirement pay.

To have that insurance benefit taken either completely or partially away because it is offset, dollar for dollar, by the roughly $1,300 monthly payment every spouse is entitled to when their loved one’s death is service-connected, is not a tax, Prout emphasizes. “It is thievery. The DOD is making a windfall profit off these retirees.”

Prout estimates she lost has about $350,000 in benefits since 1995. Her husband’s untimely death left her with three children to raise on 80 percent less income. “Our bills didn’t go down 80 percent,” she said.

California is home to about 6,000 of the 65,000 U.S. military spouses impacted by the offset, following Florida and Texas. Approximately 1,500 of the widows live in San Diego County. Getting jobs to supplement their income is difficult because many of these survivors are elderly. Several have lost their homes or were forced to move in with their children or relatives, Prout said. She knows one widow who became homeless.

Prout’s campaign against the offset started 14 years ago when she served on the Gold Star Wives of America government relations committee. “We stormed The Hill in 2013 with 100 widows from throughout the country to try to get it (removal of the offset) passed. … This was grassroots advocacy and democracy at work.”

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© 2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune