With just three words, military widow Edie Smith summed up the last two decades of countless trips to the Capitol, where she represented thousands of military widows from across the country in meetings to repeal a bill that withheld survivor benefits.
“We did it,” Smith said, as a room full of military widows, veteran service organizations and members of Congress roared in applause. “I’ve waited a long time to say that.”
Veteran service organizations hosted a Widows Tax Elimination celebration on Feb. 5 at the Capitol, where just a few months ago, lawmakers approved the FY 20 National Defense Authorization Act and its provision to eliminate the Survivor Benefit Plan-Dependency Indemnity Compensation (SBP-DIC) offset. About 400 people attended the celebration hosted by MOAA along with Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, National Military Family Association, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Gold Star Wives, Inc.
The elimination will be phased in over three years, beginning in 2021 and increasingly incrementally until spouses receive 100% of both their SBP and DIC benefits in 2023.
Among the legislators in attendance were Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) and Reps. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) and John Yarmuth (D-Ky), who sponsored legislation early in this Congressional session that garnered more than 400 co-sponsors combined. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) a supporter of the repeal for years, surprised the crowd and made closing remarks.
The offset denied surviving military widows their earned benefits after the death of their loved one. Many survivors have shared stories of shock and disbelief as they calculated how to take care of their families without the anticipated monetary benefit.
Smith learned about the offset after the death of her husband in 1998. She began working with MOAA and meeting with lawmakers, securing the first legislation to repeal the offset in 2001. Each year, she continued the fight and grew a network of other surviving military widows faced with the same shocking reality.
Wilson had been active with efforts to repeal the offset for years before meeting with MOAA in 2010 to better understand the issue and how he could help. He picked up the legislation and carried year after year.
Finally, in December 2019, Smith and Wilson witnessed the moment they – and thousands of military surviving spouses – had been waiting for: President Donald Trump signed the NDAA in a packed airplane hangar at Joint Base Andrews, Md.
“Never give up,” Wilson said. “But, hey, MOAA knows that. Never give up. And MOAA makes a difference. The state chapters communicated with members of Congress and backed up everything Edie was doing. MOAA national and MOAA state was just so vital and so successful.”
Nancy Mullen, who serves on MOAA’s Surviving Spouse Advisory Council, said the celebration helped her grasp the offset is finally repealed. She had been lobbying for the repeal for about three years since her husband, WO1 Sean Mullen, USA, was killed in action in Afghanistan after 18½ years of service and numerous deployments.
“Organizations like MOAA, we couldn’t have done it without them,” Mullen said. “MOAA and the membership level behind that, it’s more than just a couple hundred widows making phone calls. It’s the power of organizations like MOAA that represent hundreds of thousands of people and getting that support behind it has been crucial to getting this passed.”
Another of MOAA’s fiercest advocates was Kathy Prout, widow of Rear Adm. James “Jay” Prout, who died in 1995. She learned about the offset when the military’s casualty assistance officers met with her.
Prout said privacy laws made it impossible to find other military widows to talk with about the offset, so she decided to serve on MOAA’s Surviving Spouse Advisory Committee and started a Facebook group as a forum to connect others like her.
“We bonded together,” Prout said. “We wrote emails, we tweeted, we walked the halls of Congress. We told our stories and we described the difference between SBP and DIC so people understood we weren’t double dipping and we weren’t trying to get out of paying taxes.”
She has made more than 100 trips to Washington, D.C. to meet with federal lawmakers to push for the offset repeal. In 2017, Prout was invited to the White House to meet with Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen.
“This year, everything finally came together,” Prout said. “And MOAA has been vocal, along with TAPS and the VFW. I’m just so grateful.”