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Submission For The Record of Rose Elizabeth Lee, Gold Star Wives of America, Inc., Chair, Government Relations Committee

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see right, let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds,  to care for him who has borne the battle, his widow and his orphan.”

         …President Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865                       

INTRODUCTION

The Gold Star Wives of America, Inc. was founded in 1945 and isa Congressionally-chartered service organization comprised of surviving spouses of military service members who died while on active duty or as a result of a service-connected disability.  We could begin with no better advocate than Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, newly widowed, who helped make GSW a truly national organization.  Mrs. Roosevelt was an original signer of our Certificate of Incorporation as a member of the Board of Directors.  Many of our current membership of over 10,000 are the widows of service members who were killed in combat during World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the more recent wars including the one we are currently in. 

In this testimony, we are delineating the views of Gold Star Wives on H.R. 1137, to increase to $2,000 the amount of the Medal of Honor special pension under that title and to provide for payment of that pension to the surviving spouse of a deceased Medal of Honor recipient, H.R. 3047, to improve the processing of claims for benefits administered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and H.R. 3286, to reduce the period of time for which a veteran must be totally disabled before the veteran's survivors are eligible for the benefits provided by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs for survivors of certain veterans rated totally disabled at time of death—topics of the November 8, 2007 hearing before this Subcommittee.  One basic point we would like to make at the outset across all these pieces of legislation is that it is important that Congress set its priorities from the perspective of the "big picture" so survivor benefits are not fragmented by funding as opposed to merit, and that benefits for a small group do not override the legitimate needs and rights of a larger group, simply because the cost is lower.   

H.R. 1137:  We are a fortunate country to see many heroes throughout various walks of life and one great list of heroes is that of Medal of Honor recipients.  We want nothing stated here to be misconstrued as not paying the appropriate honor to these servicemen who served their country so valiantly.  We urge you to look closely at the proportionate amounts which widows of service-related deaths receive.  The DIC is 43% of disability compensation, not the 100% for the Medal of Honor recipient.  H.R. 1137 provides for a special pension and does not offset SBP, yet for non MOH recipient survivors still must undergo a reduction of SBP by DIC. 

GSW is requesting a modest increase in the DIC benefit from 43% to 55% of the VA Disability Compensation, but Social Security survivor payments of 100% and this legislation both seem to indicate that a fair standard would be 100% of the VA Disability Compensation to allow the surviving spouse to retain financial stability.

It should be noted that many of the surviving spouses of severely disabled veterans spent many years of their lives as full-time, around-the-clock caregivers.  These caregivers had no opportunity to establish a career in which they earned a living wage and retirement benefits.  In addition to the fact that many of these caregivers are now too old to embark upon a significant career, it is well documented in medical literature that caregiving does significant damage to the health of the caregiver.  These caregivers saved the VA millions of dollars by doing this caregiving for their injured or disabled spouses.  By doing the caregiving for the veteran, these spouses also served their country. When the injured spouse dies they deserve enough income to provide them with a decent standard of living.  We present this to seek equity for the entire class of survivors.

H.R. 3047:   We encourage that Section 4 specifically state, to avoid confusion, that a surviving spouse not only have the right to complete submission of a claim but also be able to continue with a claim already in process at the time when a veteran dies.     

H.R. 3286:   The greatest interest of the Gold Star Wives rests with this legislation, which would reduce, from ten years to one, the amount of time a veteran must be rated totally disabled before his or her surviving dependents can receive certain death benefits.  We are concerned that the way the bill is written, it does not mention the fact that DIC eligibility can be derived when the veteran dies of a NON service-connected disability.  It makes the reader think that they only have to be rated totally disabled one year at time of death, without mention of how the death occurs.  Hence, this DIC payment acknowledges a "non service" connected death with the same recognition as an active duty death or service connected disability.

VA Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) payments are provided as “indemnity” for the survivors of those who died on active duty or as the result of a service connected disability.  Indemnity is often used as a synonym for compensation or reparation.  Compensation implies a sum paid to make good the loss of another (service related deaths) without regard to the payer's identity, or their reasons for doing so.  An indemnity is a sub-species of compensation, in the same way that damages and reparations are.

Gold Star Wives of America believes that DIC benefits should be awarded to the surviving spouse only when a service member dies on active duty or when a veteran or retired service member dies due to a service connected disability or illness.

The survivors of a veteran who dies of a non-service connected cause are already eligible to receive DIC if the veteran was rated with a 100 percent service connected disability for 10 years, rated with a 100 percent service connected disability for 5 years from date of discharge from the military, or if the veteran is a former POW who died after September 30, 1999. 

Spousal survivor benefits have always stemmed from the benefits and rating of the veteran.  Awarding DIC to survivors of those who die of a non-service connected cause creates a whole new and expensive class of survivor benefits. It would be far better to review the veteran’s medical records and death certificate and take action to have the veteran’s rating changed or the death certificate corrected.

Providing DIC to a surviving spouse of a veteran due to a non-service connected death lessens and diminishes the dignity, respect, and value placed on the supreme sacrifice of an active duty death or a death due by a service connected disability.

To increase benefits for survivors of non-service connected veterans of today while leaving many survivors of veterans of previous wars in poverty situations in unconscionable. 

If Congress is entertaining the idea of providing DIC to the survivors of veterans whose death was not due to a service connected disability, GSW asks why Congress has not found the money to remove the DIC offset to the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP). SBP is a survivor benefit, like life insurance, paid to the survivors of retired military personnel who purchased this benefit with steep premiums and to the survivors of military personnel who died on active duty.

CONCLUSION

We appreciate this opportunity to comment on these three bills and how our perspectives have shed some light on how the committee should move forward.