Another Memorial Day is upon us with the nation honoring the ultimate sacrifice made by our servicemembers for our country. This practice dates back well over a hundred years.
I visited my husband’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery two weeks ago while I was in Washington, D.C. for an important event honoring him and the other members of his elite, clandestine joint special operations group in Vietnam, MACV-SOG the Studies and Observations Group. While it has been 3 1/2 years since I lost him to Agent Orange and pancreatic cancer, it still feels raw, like yesterday. Decades of Agent Orange left him too compromised to withstand full treatment for his cancer.
How can we honor those who have died in service while our policy makers in Congress continue to ignore or backburner the issue of 67,000 surviving spouses being deprived of all or most of the Department of Defense insurance annuity that our spouses purchased upon retirement?* The annuity is called the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) and was represented by DoD as providing up to 55 percent of servicemembers’ retirement pay to surviving spouses. If any servicemember’s death (including those who did not purchase the SBP) is due to a service-related illness or injury, the VA pays Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) to a surviving spouse. When that happens, DoD takes back the purchased SBP insurance annuity dollar-for-dollar received from the DIC, calling it an offset. This withholding that we typically learn about at or near our spouse’s death, is a cruel, total surprise to most of us. No other survivor of a Federal employee loses one benefit because they are eligible for another. By turning their backs on us, this action by DoD and, in turn, Congress, amounts to leaving the dead on the battlefield.
Congress acknowledges the law is unfair. Accordingly, it is their responsibility to change the law. Virtually every major veterans’ and active duty organization has called for the repeal of this offset.
The noted military writer Tom Philpott has called the offset a “bait-and-switch” Right now, as Congress prepares the Defense budget for next year, the NDAA19, 267 Houses members are co-sponsors of the bill HR 846 (including District 4’s Tom McClintock) and 41 senators co-sponsor S.339. Our bill has more co-sponsors than any other bill before the key House Armed Services Committee. Congress needs to include us in that budget. Year after year we are left behind for newer, noisier groups, apparently representing more votes. On this Memorial Day, where is their sense of duty on behalf of servicemembers and their families? Patriotic speeches alone mean little. Make this the year that Congress passes and funds the repeal of the offset and DoD starts providing our SBP.
Congress, please walk your talk on this issue. Not passing and funding the offset repeal dishonors our late military members and insults their spouses.
Paula R. Spear
Widow of James H. Spear, U.S. Army, Intel/Special Operations
• Spouses of servicemembers who died on active duty post-9/11 now also are eligible for the SBP.