This is the story of how a small group of women, with a just cause, has prevailed on Congress and the White House to right a wrong. It is also the story of a system that works and a government that keeps its commitments.
In the summer of 1981, when Congress curtailed Social Security benefits for widows and eliminated Social Security benefits for students after the age of 18, it reduced the benefits of an estimated 26,000 widows and 70,000 children of men killed in the Vietnam war. While they continued to receive Veterans Administration benefits, they lost, as of last May 1, an average $265 a month per dependent from Social Security.
When Madeline Van Wagenen, widow of a Marine Corps helicopter pilot and mother of a son who is now 14, realized the benefits were being cut, she wrote letters to Washington but got no response. Then she and other widows formed a group called Survivors of Sacrifice and they began writing congressmen and coming to Washington to tell their story.
What made their situation unusual was that they were able to prove that the Social Security payments were an integral part of the deal the government made with their husbands. "Our basic argument was you ought to keep your word to a man that gives up his life for you," says Van Wagenen.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) sponsored a bill to restore their benefits, and soon the group was using his offices as their headquarters. They found allies on key committees and showed them documents that outlined to servicemen the benefits their survivors would receive. They dug up old congressional testimony "that made it clear that we were to have an integrated package of benefits, that both Social Security and Veterans Administration benefits were important," says Van Wagenen.
At first, they had trouble even getting an appointment with anyone in the Defense Department. Finally, Assistant Secretary of the Navy John Harrington, hearing about Van Wagenen's story, decided he wanted to speak with her personally. "She said, 'My husband and I had a contract when we joined the Marine Corps,' " Harrington recalled. "She handed me the papers: 'If you're killed in combat here's what happens: We take care of your family, we educate your children.' She said, 'We joined and those rights were vested the day he was killed.' I said, 'Madeline, you're absolutely right.'"
Harrington, a former Marine, took Van Wagenen and her son to the White House to meet with presidential counselor Edwin Meese III and a staff member. She enlisted Meese's support and, through him, President Reagan's. "This is an issue the president believed in very strongly," says Harrington. "The purity of the issue hit me, it hit Ed Meese and it hit the president."
Van Wagenen, who took a year off from school to devote to the effort, and a group of about 30 other women personally lobbied most members of Congress or someone on their staffs. It was crucial to their success, according to Michael Converse, Hunter's legislative director. "Most members are used to being lobbied by paid lobbyists for an association with lots of bucks," he said. "She's just told her story and it came across very effectively and got a lot of people on her side."
The move to restore benefits eventually was cosponsored by 182 members of the House and 50 members of the Senate, where it was introduced by Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.). It became trapped, however, in unrelated legislative disputes and as the lame duck session neared an end, it looked as though it would not pass.
Van Wagenen enlisted the aid of Cranston and Sen. Dan Quayle (R-Ind.), and an amendment to restore the benefits for Vietnam casualties' widows and children was overwhelmingly passed as part of the continuing resolution. The benefits, costing an estimated $49 million next year, will be paid by the Defense Department, and the program will end when there are no more eligible dependents of servicemen who died during the Vietnam war.
"The system could have broken my heart," says Van Wagenen. "But the fact is enough people cared to make this happen."
Survivors of Sacrifice had only their own money and their own time to give to their effort. They had no legislative experience. Yet they were able to come to Washington and petition the highest levels of government. They found not callous disregard for their cause, but a government run by people who responded with compassion and decency.
It is something to remember this holiday when we pause and reflect on our blessings.