Vets in Congress Introduce Bill to Protect Gold Star Spouse Benefits

Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., asks a question of Budget Director Mick Mulvaney during a the House Budget Committee hearing, Feb. 14, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo)
Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., asks a question of Budget Director Mick Mulvaney during a the House Budget Committee hearing, Feb. 14, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo)

When Sgt. 1st Class Ofren Arrechaga was killed in Afghanistan in 2011, his wife Seana vowed to follow the plan the couple had for their family: She would remain a stay-at-home mom to raise their son, now 11.

She continues to do that, thanks to the compensation and health benefits provided to widows and widowers of service members who die in the line of duty.

Seana Arrechaga was 22 when her soldier died, and she continues to grieve. She doesn't date. But not simply out of respect for Ofren. She doesn't see the point, she says, because dating could lead to marriage. And if she remarries before she turns 55, she would lose thousands of dollars a month because of a law that would stop her annuity payments when she tied the knot.

"A lot of people assume that we are well taken care of," said Arrechaga of Gold Star spouses. "And we are, to a point. But to not be able to remarry, to lose benefits, seems unfair."

Three combat veterans in the House of Representatives want to change the law and allow military widows and widowers to retain their survivor benefit payments if they remarry – a proposal spouses say would let them raise their families and retain a connection they want to the military.

The bill, H.R. 1911, or the Sgt. First Class Brian Woods Gold Star and Military Survivors Act, would also extend child care assistance to surviving spouses and give continued access to base facilities such commissaries, exchanges and fitness centers to those with dependent children who remarry .

And it includes a provision to cover the cost of transporting the bodies of those killed in combat to their hometowns for services and later, to a national cemetery, if the family requests it.

Currently, the government pays for one trip.

The legislation is needed, said co-sponsor Michael Waltz, R-Florida, because it would ensure that "Gold Star families of our fallen are cared for by giving their children and spouses the lifelong benefits they deserve."

"The knock on the door that initiates a family into the Gold Star community is the most dreaded moment in a military family's life," Waltz said in a release. "From that moment forward, these families deserve our best and most meaningful commitment in honor of their loved one's sacrifice for our freedom and security."

"Gold Star families should have the peace of mind that comes with knowing child care and funeral expenses are taken care of and that they will receive the nation's lifelong financial support," said Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat and co-sponsor.

The bill is named for Woods, a Special Forces senior medical sergeant and former Marine who served with Waltz. He died Aug. 16, 2009, from wounds received during a patrol in Ghazni province, Afghanistan, and was survived by his wife Elizabeth and two young daughters, one aged 5 and the other 8 months at his death.

Retired Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 Joe Kent lost his wife, Navy Senior Chief Cryptologic Technician (Interpretive) Shannon Kent, in a suicide bomb attack in Manbij, Syria, in January. As a military retiree, he will retain access to military bases and health care for life.

But he was stunned to learn during the course of his casualty assistance communications that he – and all surviving spouses – lose monthly income if they remarry. He said the law itself reads like something "straight out of the 1950s."

"If a woman remarries, the guy she marries is now responsible for her. It's that kind of mentality," Kent said. "If you look at the stats, most are women widowed in their 20s, so you are telling a young lady, with maybe with a kid or two, she will be financially penalized."

For Gold Star spouses who have found new loves, some have gotten married and forfeited their annuities. But many are opting to live with new partners without exchanging vows to ensure they will continue to receive benefits.

Arrechaga said if the bill becomes law, it would show survivors that the country continues to want to care for them. "I just don't even think most people know that this is an issue," she said.

Similar legislation was proposed in both the Senate and the House in 2017 but never made it out of the chambers' respective Armed Services Committees.

In 2016, a measure was defeated largely based on the price tag, estimated at $1 billion over 10 years.

H.R. 1911 has yet to be assessed for cost. It would provide annuity payments to those surviving spouses who have remarried starting with the month the legislation was signed.

"At the end of the day, is the government really saving money by taking away that stipend? There's not a ton of survivors," Kent said.

Co-sponsor Rep. Don Bacon, R-Nebraska, said he is committed to ensuring that the legislation passes this year. It builds, he said, "on important progress made last year."

"Our Gold Star and surviving family members deserve a commitment for life," Bacon said.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @patriciakime.

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