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Submission For The Record of Ms. Patricia Walenchok McElhaney, (Widow of Captain John A. Walenchok, Jr., USAF), Niceville, FL

Thank you Chairman Hall, Representative Buyer, Members of the Subcommittee, and my own Congressman, Representative Jeff Miller FL-1st.    I am grateful for the opportunity to submit my statement for the record regarding H.R. 704.  I appreciate the efforts of Representative Gus Bilirakis, also a Florida Congressman, to continue his father’s efforts to correct the injustice to surviving spouses of service related death by allowing us to remarry at age 55. It is right that widows of service connected deaths retain our much deserved compensation that is paid by the Department of Veterans Affairs as an indemnity payment in recognition of our tragic loss and sacrifice when our husband and father died serving our county.  This legislation simply seeks equity with the Federal survivor programs who permit remarriage at age 55 as provided to civilians and military who did not die of causes related to military service.

I am a member of The Gold Star Wives of America, Inc, and the Military Officers’ Association of America Auxiliary.  I rely heavily on these two organizations to keep me educated on current survivor benefits.

In 2003, The Veterans Benefit Act, H.R. 2297, was passed at age 57 due to limitations of funding and the implied “promise” of a first step which would be lowered to the age of 55 as the second step.  I have now waited four years for the equity age of 55.  I remarried at age 56 and one month, so this “penalty” of eleven months has been a bitter pill to swallow.

In 2002, I believe it is important to note that The Department of Veterans Affairs expressed its support for enactment of legislation to provide DIC payments with remarriage at age 55.   Testimony presented by Daniel L. Cooper, Under Secretary for Benefits, Department of Veterans Affairs, to this very Subcommittee on Benefits, Committee on Veterans Affairs, on Thursday, April 11, 2002, supported enactment of HR 1108.  HR 1108, sponsored in the 108th Congress by Rep. Michael Bilirakis, FL-9th, contained the language of HR 704 as introduced recently in the 110th Congress by Representative Gus Bilirakis and the subject of this Hearing today.   The Department’s support of HR 1108 to provide equitable DIC benefits with other DOD and civilian Federal survivor benefits was contingent on funding to be made available by The Congress.   The President and The Congress has nearly doubled the funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs over these past several years, and yet,  inclusion of the small amount needed to provide DIC with remarriage at age 55 has not been made available.

 I am a widow of a United States Air Force Officer who died from his 100% service connected medical disability in 1970. At the time of his illness, there was very little help or knowledge made available for families in our situation.  I am very grateful for the outstanding medical care he received from Wilford Hall Hospital in San Antonio, Texas, It meant relocating to that city many miles away from family and friends back in Arizona who could have given us the help we so desperately needed.  My husband and I had two very young children for whom I became the single caregiver; all the while providing the nursing care responsibilities for my husband.

I took care of him in our home for five years during the times that he did not require hospitalization. At that time there was no home health care available from CHAMPUS or the VA.   It was a 24/7 job.    I was never offered “Aid and Attendance” or a “Housebound” Allowance by the Veterans Administration as his sole caregiver.   I learned about those benefits after his death and they were not paid retroactive for his circumstances.  The burden was on me to discover the benefits; certainly not on the DOD/VA employees to provide assistance to apply for them.  The VA furnished him a hospital bed and bedside commode for home use. The Cancer Society would bring me lambskin pads for him to lie on. He was on high doses of Prednisone which robbed his bones of all minerals, proteins and calcium causing them to weaken. The back vertebras started to crush. There was not much that could be done. He was put in a back brace. The pain got progressively worse. He finally reached the point that he could not walk and was bedridden. He developed severe bedsores no matter how often I changed his position while in bed. His mind deteriorated to the point that he did not know me as his wife and did not recognize his children. The Prednisone made him susceptible to fungal infections contracting Cryptococcus Meningitis and T.B. while in the hospital. All this while, I had him home, transporting him to Willford Hall Hospital at least twice a week for blood and platelet transfusions. He hemorrhaged often and in the end they could not stop the bleeding with the transfusions. He bled into his brain on the final day.

My husband enlisted in the Air Force in 1954. He spent four years at Nellis A.F.B. Nevada before being accepted into the Aviation Cadet program. It was an extremely proud day for all of us and our families when he received his commission as a Second Lieutenant. in 1959.  After completing Navigator training he was an Electronic Warfare Officer flying B-52s missions during the Cuban Missile Crisis from a remote base in Northern Michigan.  In 1963 he was selected to go to Pilot training. After receiving his wings he was assigned as an instructor pilot.  In 1965 his health problems started and were diagnosed after seven months of testing at Wilford Hall Hospital with a rare bone marrow disease Paroxysmal Nocturnal Hemoglobinuria, thought to be from exposure to the chemical Benzene during the time he was stationed at Nellis A.F.B. There was no other apparent reason as he was a pilot at the onset of his illness. When I tried to check on this, I was told there had been a fire in St. Louis and his records were lost.  My husband survived for a period of five years with intensive medical care provided by me as his sole caregiver at home.  I am proud to say he never saw the inside of a nursing home!   I cannot imagine how much his care would have cost the government had I not volunteered to care for him. After his death, I learned there was an additional special DIC allowance of $228.00 mo.  However, I did not qualify for this additional allowance because of the requirement that he have lived 8 years at 100% disability after medical retirement.  Because of his illness he was prevented from working.  It was also impossible for me to work outside the home as he required too much care.   During the years since his death, I have met many widows of the disabled retiree who qualify for this additional allowance even though’ their husband did not require this same care and they did not physically provide the similar intensive care for their 100% disabled husband.

When he passed away I wanted him to have the same quality funeral that he would have been given had he still been active duty. I received only a very small allowance so paid out of our own funds for the casket and services of the Funeral Home. He was provided a gravesite at Ft. Sam Houston National Cemetery where he now rests. I became a widow alone with the life-long responsibility of an eight year old and four year old when I was twenty-nine years old. Not only had I lost my husband, my children had lost their Father, and their children will never know their Grandfather.

In 1996, I made a choice to remarry, giving up my DIC benefits. I had developed some severe health problems and I really needed the comfort, help, peace of mind and dignity that only a committed relationship could give me. After all the years of saving the government money  with the  care I gave my deceased husband, I missed getting my DIC benefits reinstated by just 11 months because of the compromise age of  57 in Bill H.R. 2297 back in 2003.

I am very grateful for the years I was married to such a proud American. This man even wrote a letter to President Nixon from his death bed just six weeks before passing. In this letter he tells of his deep desire to serve his country. As I sat at his beside that last day, I could only repay him with my love, respect, and comfort.

I respectfully request that you consider H.R. 704 in the interest of equity for all military widows who are age 55 with retention of eligibility with remarriage.   Passage of HR 704 is the right thing to do!