Bill Seeks to Improve VA Benefits for Surviving Spouses

By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 13, 2009

As the law now stands, the surviving spouse of a soldier who dies in service to the country receives a lower rate of compensation than survivors of federal civilian employees killed while performing their duties.

The lower rate for Department of Veterans Affairs benefits paid to widows and widowers whose spouses died while on active military duty or as a result of service-connected injuries or illnesses has long outraged many military families and veterans groups.

That may be changing.

"This shocking inequity should not be allowed to continue," said Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), who introduced a bill with Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) in Congress last week to alter the policy.

"It's a long time in coming, and I'm thankful it was introduced," Asenth L. Blackwell, whose husband was killed by a land mine in Vietnam while serving with the U.S. Army Special Forces in 1969, said this week. "It's only fair."

The Surviving Spouses Benefit Improvement Act of 2009 would increase the amount of dependency and indemnity compensation (DIC) to 55 percent of the compensation paid to a totally disabled veteran. The current rate of basic DIC is about 43 percent.

"The bill is a milestone and the result of a tireless grassroots effort among many members of the military community," Gold Star Wives of America, which represents widows and widowers of those who died in connection with military service, said in a statement.

The increase would bring DIC in line with other federal programs that give survivors 55 percent of their spouses' retirement pay.

"It's not about the money, it's about principle," said Vivianne Wersel, whose husband, a Marine lieutenant colonel, died of a heart condition soon after returning from a deployment to Iraq.

About 340,000 spouses get DIC payments. Other than cost-of-living adjustments, the rates have not been increased in more than 16 years.

"The last major improvement to this program was in 1992, and our widows have waited too long for this inequity to be resolved," Buyer said.

"We owe due compensation to the families of those who serve and die on active duty or from a disability connected to their service," Walz said in a statement. "This new legislation will ensure that the survivors receive that due compensation."

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