Why Don't Military Widows Get Full Educational Benefits?


Update: As of August 2014, Post-9/11 GI Bill military widow benefits have been extended. Read more about surviving spouse and family education benefits on Military.com.

We military spouses duly learn to dread the knock at the door.  The folded flag.  The long, strange, dark trip through the thousand things a widow or widower must do if a service member is killed in the line of duty.  Does worrying about paying for college tuition really have to be one of those things?

This week my colleague Terry Howell (King of Military Benefits) sent me a story about how military widows don’t qualify for educational benefits from the Post 9/11 GI Bill.

Their kids do.  Which is really helpful if you are the parent of a one year old and a four year old when you lose your beloved.

I didn’t know that widows don’t qualify for that benefit.  Why ever not?  This is just one more worry to keep military spouses up at night.

Because even though we know that the military takes care of its own, the truth is that when you are a young military widow, life is long.  Survivor benefits like SGLI are generous, yet they are designed to help you get on your feet so that you can step up and become the breadwinner.

Becoming the sole breadwinner is doable, but daunting—even for people who are not stricken with grief.  The truth is that many widows and widowers do not have the educational background required to support themselves and their children.  Many have spent years out of the workforce in order to serve as stay home parents because that was what was best for their military family.

So when these people lose their beloved, they will probably have to retool. Yet their ability to go back to school and retrain is limited.  Under the Survivors’ and Dependents’ Education Assistance (SDEA) program, spouses of the fallen are only eligible to receive federal education benefits.  This program does not cover the full cost of tuition and fees although it does provide a small stipend.

Widows do not qualify for Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.  That doesn’t seem right to me.  That doesn’t seem right to a lot of people.  That is why Senator Jeff Merkley has proposed the Spouses of Heroes Education Act.

Under Senator Merkley’s bill, the Post-9/11 GI Bill would be amended to include spousal eligibility for families of service members who died on active duty. Spouses of these service members could receive the full cost of public, in-state undergraduate tuition and fees, plus a monthly living stipend and book allowance.

This change would not cost the taxpayer much.  There are just about 3000 military widows of OEF and OIF. Many of them are already self-supporting.  Many of them already have degrees.  Not all of them would welcome a chance to go back to college.

Some of them would.  More important is the knowledge that they could.  I’m not asking for a handout for military widows.  I’m asking for the loopholes to be plugged with a little logic.  So that we all sleep a little better at night.

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