Midlife divorce hurls most people into personal chaos and despair, but its aftermath can be especially brutal for the former wife of a military man.
Once the separation becomes legal, such a wife loses her right to the many benefits, including medical insurance, that would have been hers after 20 or more years of service life.
She can not be assured of receiving court-oredered payments from a former husband who has left her state, nor is she entitled to a portion of the retirement pension. By law, she may never be a beneficiary of he ex-husband's survivor benefits, even if he wants to name her as such. And she may not keepher id card, a kind of "open sesame" to discount shopping on the base as well as free health care and medication.
According to data collected by a new coalition of former militiary wives, the result is poverty and even welfare status for manyof this country's estimated 150,000 former spouses of servicemen.
Coalition of military divorcess, which calls itself Ex-Partners of Servicemen for Equality (Expose), is trying to bring their plight to the attention of those with the power to alleviate it.
At the helm of the Virginia-based organization is Nancy Abell, separated from her husband, a former Army colonel, after 25 years, and today a leader in the fight for a better benefits plan for ex-wives of military men.
As Abell sees it, a long as these women must depend on support from their former spouses, they should be allowed to keep their status as military dependents.
So far, EXPOSE arguments have reached a few sympathetic ears on the Hill, including those of Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D -- Col.) who earlier this year introduced a bill for prorated retirement pay and survivor annuities for ex-wives who were married to servicemen at least 10 years.
Another bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Kent Hance (D-Texas) and and Rep. Joseph Fisher (D-Va.), would authorize direct payment to an ex-spouse of court-awarded portions of amilitary man's retirement pay.
A third bill pending in Congress would extend the military health care benefits to former spouses who were married to acitve-duty military personnel for 20 years or more, It has been co-sponsored by Reps. John Burton (D-Ca.) and William Whitehurst (R-Va.).
The chief opposition to extending dependent benefits to ex-wives comes from the Defense Department and various veteran organizations. The opponents say it would cost too much -- $45 million a year for the medical benefits alone, they estimate.
"They tell us we haven't earned it, that these benefits belong to the men", Abell notes. "But if we haven't earned it, certainly the new wife hasn't earned it either. Yet she is getting it all, and often at a highercost to the taxpayer if she is younger (and therefore more likely to be eligible for benefits longer)".
To share ideas, maintain their campaign's momentum and develop lobbying strategy, local EXPOSE members gather at 2 p.m.the second Saturday of each month at the Bethlehem Lutheran Church on Little River Turnpike in Fairfax. (For information, call 451-0189).