Note from MOAA: Kathy Prout is a recipient of MOAA's Distinguished Service Award, which honors individuals and organizations supporting servicemembers and the wider military community. Read more about MOAA’s 2021 award winners.
By Kristin Davis
When the plane carrying Kathy Prout’s husband went missing May 17, 1995, she figured it must have landed safely somewhere.
“I wasn’t a pilot’s wife. I didn’t really understand what ‘missing’ meant,” she said. “I wasn’t thinking the worst.”
She soon learned the F/A-18 Hornet her husband was riding in had crashed in the mountains of New Mexico. Rear Adm. James Prout was the first naval flag officer to lose his life in the line of duty since World War II.
He left behind three children. “They went to school one morning and everything was fine,” she said. “I went to a meeting and came home and all these people were in my house. It was shocking.”
Another blow followed when she learned the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) would be reduced dollar for dollar by Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) payments from the VA.
“My income was reduced by almost 80% from active duty pay,” she said.
Nobody could explain why — not the casualty assistance officer or her husband’s friends.
“I knew it would be difficult to live on this with three children, but I could do it,” Prout explained. “What about lower-ranking surviving spouses? How could they live on so much less? I knew this was wrong. I thought it was a policy that could be easily fixed. I found out the law had to be changed. That was daunting.”
[RELATED MOAA RESOURCES: The Widows Tax]
Yet even as Congress eliminated other offsets, including for surviving spouses who remarried, this one — the so-called “widows tax” — remained. So she decided to change it.
“I became the surviving spouse liaison for my MOAA chapter and started volunteering for MOAA and educating my board and others about the offset,” Prout said.
When she convinced MOAA to make it a legislative priority, “it was a game-changer.”
In 2013, MOAA included for the first time the SBP-DIC offset in its annual advocacy event on the Hill. That same year, Prout started two Facebook groups for surviving spouses. Until then, “we couldn’t find each other because of privacy laws. Congress needed to hear from those who were impacted. We created letters to send, guidelines, statistics, what to say in a phone call, and we walked the halls of Congress.”
[MONTHLY UPDATES: MOAA's Surviving Spouse Corner]
For Prout, who lives in California, that meant walking the halls of Congress 18 times a year. At last, the work paid off. In 2019, the Military Surviving Spouses Equity Act received more co-sponsors than any bill in the 116th Congress. Through grassroots advocacy, the issue was included in the FY 2020 National Defense Authorization Act and passed into law.
“My husband’s death was so senseless,” she said. “Changing this law gives meaning to his death and has also helped countless surviving spouses.”