Gertrude F. Small is her name, gentlemen of the bureaucracy. She is a 76-year-old lady who looks like she's incapable of an evil thought. But she hates your guts.
Her husband was a chief bosun's mate in the U.S. Coast Guard for more than 30 years before his retirement. He died on March 7, 1958. For all that service, his widow gets a pension check each month for $5.
What's more, she used to get $5.46. But Mrs. Small, you see, was a telephone operator. She gets a pension for that. It rose with the cost of living a few years ago. At the same time, by law, the pension she got for her husband's service dropped - by the same amount that her own rose.
Mrs. Small lives "with another girl" in an apartment in Southeast Washingtonn. Her monthly income, counting Socilal Security and her phone company pension, is $294. She has no children who might help.
"How would you feel? I feel like hell," said Mrs. Small. "If my husband knew, he'd come out of his grave." And she fights off tears.
But Mrs. Small fights in another way. She is one of about 300 members of the Washington chapter of the Society of Military Widows. The members have a nickname for themselves that tells it all: the Forgotten Widows.
But they don't sit around bellyaching, or reliving officers' club dances of wars gone by. Theirs is a hardnosed lobby, and its chief mission is to redress situations like Gertrude Small's.
Thanks to Congress, the short end of the stick belongs very firmly to military widows nearing 60, or already past. In 1972, in its wisdom, Congress expanded pensions and benefits for military widows. But it failed to include the small group of widows who were not then receiving pensions, and it failed to upgrade the pensions that widows like Mrs. Small were receiving.
Jean Arthurs, the chief lobbyist for the Washington chapter of SMW, tells of one horror story that resulted.
"One woman lost her husband on Sept. 20, 1972, the day before the hill became law," Mrs. Arthurs said. "Another woman lost her husband, the next day. The first woman gets absolutely nothing. The second gets 55 per cent of her husband's salary for life."
There are few such disparities, if any, among military widows whose husbands died while on active duty. The problem lies with widows whose husbands had retired and died before 1972. Most of the Forgotten Widows are in the latter category.
They know that their financial and physical conditions can only get worse without help. They insist that they are not looking for freebies or special treatment - just equal treatment, enough to get by.
That could come if two bills now in Capitol Hill committees pass.
Between them, the two bills would wipe out discrimination against women who were already widows in 1972 and provide cost-of-living increases in benefits for all widows.
But "at this point, nothing's happening," said Karen Heath, a legislative aide to Rep. Bob Wilson (R-Calif.), who sponsored the widows bill in the House.
Heath said that May is traditionally the month when such bills move toward action in the two Armed Services Committees.Is she optimistic? "No." Is she pessimistic? "No again." In short, you can never tell on the Hill.
The Forgotten Widows got forgotten in the first place, Heath said, because, in 1972, "there was a certain reluctance to blanket everybody in. Some members saw it as a free ride kind of thing."
She stressed, though, that removing a Social Security offset provision like the one that bedevils Gertrude Small would cost "only a lousy $1.5 million" for the whole nation. Nor would complete equity be prohibitively expensive - not the way "expensive" is often defined on the Hill and in the pentagon.
So the Forgotten Widows are gearing for a lobbying assault on congressional offices next month. Being brassy, as they will need to be, is not easy for anybody. And many of the widows admit that it is even less easy for them.
"I still instinctively look to my husband for help," said one woman, who has been a widow for eight years. "I'll be doing the bills and I'll turn over my shoulder to start to ask him to check my subtraction."
There are particular perils, too, to being a military widow.
"All of a sudden that whole (military) world, which used to be the whole world, is closed to you," said Louise Kieffer, president of the Washington chaper of SMW.
"It's a couples-oriented society, anyway, not to mention a man's world. But the tough part for us is that we've lived all our lives in the military world and now we're not welcome there anymore."
An added irony is that, because they have had to pull down their paintings every couple of years and move on to somewhere else, military widows do not have nearly as much "hard" job experience as many civilian widows their own age.
"All of us have rolled 17,000 bandages," said one widow. "What good does that do us now?"
Very little, of course. So the SMW membership is full of women going back to school at 57, working as GS-3s, learning to take shorthand. Many have all they can handle to stay even.
And some have more than they can handle. Tales of going on welfare or hiding in the bottle are common. Yet few of the widows who attend the SMW's monthly meetings fail to be cheered in some way.
The meetings appear to act as a kind of group therapy, with an almost revivalist tone.
At this month's meeting, for example, held as usual at the headquarters post at Ft. Myer, Va., one woman was introduced as having come "all the way from Baltimore." The 36 in attendance all cheered.Then there were excited murmurs of "right" or "amen" as individuals told tales of voe to a speaker from the Veterans Administration.
But the mood was not without lightness. During a discussion of remarriage (widows lose all their benefits if they remarry before 60, Jean Arthurs brought down the house when she said, "If any widow over 60 can get a husband> she deserves to keep her benefits."
In fact, the women say, remarriage is neigher something they expect nor something most of them want. Most SMW members still wear wedding rings, even those widowed for 20 years or more.
"Men our age all want girls 26," Mrs. Kieffer said. "A lot of us are just resigned to going it alone," said another widow. "That's why the lobbying effort is so important."
If justice alone could get the job done on Capitol Hill, there would be no cause for worry. But balanced budgets and cost-effectiveness are the more normal standards. And the way the budgeting process works, bucks for old ladies would have to count against bucks for new artillery.
Maybe looking Gertrude Small in the eye would change that - and maybe it should.