The seven women told their stories in a sunny living room near Lake Barcroft. All were widows with children to educate, all were victims of last summer's cuts in Social Security benefits for widows and orphans. But there was something special about these widows: They were widowed because their husbands died while serving in the military. Their children are without fathers because those men gave their lives for their country.
These were men, say their widows, who had the courage to serve their country during the Vietnam war when war wasn't popular. Many of them were pilots who could not get private insurance or young servicemen who could not afford it. But they believed their families would be taken care of if they were killed. They believed their widows would receive Social Security until the youngest child was 18. They believed their children would receive Social Security until the age of 22 if they were in school. The men believed that if they died, the government would help educate their children. It was part of the deal.
But as of May 1, the deal has been renegotiated. Widows' benefits will stop when the youngest child is 16, and orphans' benefits will stop when the child is 18. There was no grandfather clause for women who were military widows when the general cuts were made, and although these women do not know how many widows are affected, they say the Veterans Administration estimates some 46,000 youngsters will be.
Two of them are the youngest children of Evelyn Grubb, whose husband, Air Force Maj. Newk Grubb, was shot down in 1966 on what she calls a suicide mission: an unarmed, unescorted flight over North Vietnam. "The North Vietnamese said he lived nine days, but they perpetuated his life five years by publishing pictures of him and telling other POWs his name." For five years, Evelyn Grubb was sure her husband was alive. For the next four, she simply didn't know. "I'm one who was in the POW/MIA thing without a determination," she says. "It took nine years to get his body back and buried. I fought that battle and now I'm back in Washington fighting this. . . . Now the two who never knew their father are being punished by not getting an education.
"This does not pay for the children's education," she says. "What it does is provide a base so we can perhaps scrape together the rest from loans, scholarships and family help. But it's $360 a month. Without it there is no way my children could go to college."
Madeline Van Wagenen's husband, a Marine Corps helicopter pilot, was killed in a night training accident on Okinawa in 1973. She was left with a son who is now 13. When she found out about the benefit cuts, she sent the flag that covered her husband's coffin to President Reagan, along with a note suggesting that he could save money by using the flag on another serviceman's grave.
Van Wagenen, who says the average benefit per dependent is $265 a month, has taken this year off from school to work full-time for restoration of benefits. She and other widows have formed a group, called Survivors of Sacrifice, which has spread from California to dozens of other areas where military widows live. "It was such a slap in the face to my husband," says Van Wagenen.
"This commitment was made with him. His account number is on every one of those checks." And she points to the chief of naval personnel's message on an old Navy publication in which he says the benefits "belong" to the Navy personnel and were "earned."
Clair Leaver's husband, a Navy commander, was killed in a helicopter crash in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1972, leaving her with two small boys. She figures she will lose $32,000 in benefits that would have helped pay for their college education. She and Van Wagenen have persuaded their congressmen, Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and Robert Badham (R-Calif.) to sponsor legislation restoring the benefits through the Veterans Administration. A spokesman for Hunter said it would cost less than 1 percent of the old student benefit program.
Hunter, who was in the infantry in Vietnam, says he can remember being given assurances that in event of death the children would be educated. "They laid out everything that would be available to our families, and that included Social Security benefits." Hunter, a conservative supporter of Reagan, argues for restoring the benefits on the grounds that these families relied on government assurances and are not in a position to make alternative plans.
It is nice that doing what is right, for once, won't cost more than an F-14, as Clair Leaver put it. But that's not the point. The government made a commitment to men it sent out to die. To renege on a deal with men who gave the ultimate sacrifice would be, quite simply, the ultimate outrage.