For the last two weeks, Nancy Abell's phone has rarely stopped ringing. The calls are from women all over the United States, former wives of military personnel who are getting a dismaying message from their ex-husbands: "You're not getting another cent from me."
Those messages, Abell said, are a direct result of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that the women have no right to share in their former husbands' military pension after a divorce.
"Women from all over the country are just really up in arms," said Abell, president of Ex-Partners of Servicemen for Equality (EXPOSE), an organization formed just over a year ago to lobby Congress on behalf of former military wives. "We've been getting calls from all over, from lots of women saying they're getting telegrams and phone calls from their ex-husbands saying, 'That's it. I'm not going to give you any more money because of this decision.'"
"It's like you've been slapped in the face and told you're not worth anything after putting in all these years and raising a family while he advances in his career. You're left with nothing."
Already, EXPOSE, the National Military Wives Association and similar lobbying groups have taken their case to Congress, where bills have been introduced in the House and Senate to provide some pension benefits for former spouses.
"If Congress doesn't address this issue this year, we'll be back yearly until it does," said Rosemary Locke, president of the National Military Wives Association, which is based in suburban Maryland.
Still, those lobbying efforts have been of little comfort to many former spouses.
"The women are in a state of panic," said Nan Cooper, president of the 182-member Virginia Beach Chapter of EXPOSE, which has 1,800 members nationwide. "Some pay their mortgages with that (retirement share). In effect, it's their livelihood. Many of them can't work for medical reasons and they're worried they'll end up on welfare. Many of them are too old to start out in careers and have no job skills because they've been busy taking care of the family."
Ironically, according to Cooper and other EXPOSE officials, few former husbands are telling their wives directly that benefits will be cut off.
"A lot of husbands are going through their children," Cooper said. "I don't know if they just don't have the nerve to talk to their former wives or if they're too ashamed to. But the children are getting the word before Mom does and they have to pass it on to her."
In the Supreme Court decision handed down two weeks ago, the court ruled 6-3 that Congress intended military pensions only for the person who had served. While recognizing "the plight of an ex-spouse of a retired service member is often a serious one," the court said it was up to Congress to provide more protection for former spouses. Until then, the court said, state divorce laws cannot supersede federal laws.
Betty A. Thompson, a prominent divorce attorney in Arlington, has handled several cases involving military personnel.
"The women who are going to be hurt are those (who get divorces in) community property and equitable distribution states," Thompson said.
In community property states, assets acquired during a marriage are split evenly in a divorce. An equitable property state allows a judge to decide what is a fair distribution of assets. The Supreme Court ruling does not allow military pensions to be counted as assets, Thompson said, and thus leaves former spouses in either situation without a legal right to any portion of the pensions.
In this area, Maryland and the District have equitable distribution laws. Virginia is among six states in the nation that do not fall under either category.
In Virginia, according to Thompson, the only time pension benefits are directly awarded is when a husband voluntarily agrees to such an award in a divorce decree. Because such decrees are legally binding, Thompson said, women divorced in Virginia need not fear that their pension benefits will be eliminated.
Like others concerned about future benefits for former wife of military personnel, Thompson says she hopes Congress "will do its job and protect these wives who have given up so many years of their lives for their husbands' careers."
Under bills currently before Congress, former spouses who had been married to military personnel for at least 10 years would be able to receive retirement pay on a prorated basis.
The House proposal has broadbased support, but is expected to encounter opposition in the Armed Services Committee, said a spokesman for Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), one of the bill's chief sponsors in the House. The spokesman, Robert Lettin, said there may be hearings on the bill later this summer.
In the Senate, two bills have been introduced. One addresses only the military pension issue. The other is part of the Economic Equity Act of 1981, which sponsors say was designed to address a variety of financial issues for women, including military pensions.
"There's a strong commitment for economic equity for women . . . so this probably has more public appeal," said Jack Robertson, a spokesman for Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.).
"What's important about (they bills) is that (Congress would be) telling courts that we expect they will look at pensions as valid property rights," added Jenna Dorn, a Hatfield aide, who expects Senate hearings later this year.
Until then, EXPOSE President Abell said many women have told her they already are considering ways to ensure their financial security.
"A lot of women are wondering now if they're going to have to go back into court to try to get an increase in their alimony," she said.
"Our constitution provides for equality and justice for all, but it seems to me that that doesn't apply to women."