On Mother’s Day 2010, Marine Sgt. Thomas Bagosy told his wife that he loved her and that he had completed his two purposes in life: He had served his country and helped bring their children into the world.
The next day, after a battle with post-traumatic stress that spanned nearly half a decade, he put a .22 caliber pistol to his head and shot himself.
His wife, Katie Bagosy, found out several hours later when a casualty notification officer from Camp Lejeune, N.C., pulled up to her door. In his hand: a gigantic three-ring binder with a fading American flag plastered from cover to binding and the “Widow’s Survival Handbook” nestled within.
“He hands me this gigantic binder with ‘the days ahead’ written on the side,” Bagosy recalled. “It was too much to deal with.”
After more than 13 years of war that have killed 6,808 service members, thousands of spouses of the fallen have found themselves in the same position — forced to navigate a complex and often perplexing system of benefits. And although the nation has largely moved on from Iraq and Afghanistan, the federal benefits system has made it hard for some survivors to do the same.
The system rewards most generously those who don’t remarry or find work and weans those who do from compensation and benefits. Starkly put, survivors say, it has put a price tag on the daunting process of moving on.
Bagosy, who has a part-time marketing job, recalls learning that if she were to earn an income over a certain amount, her deceased husband’s Social Security payments would be reduced. The same rule applies to the widows and widowers of civilians, but it has hit survivors of the fallen — many of them young and lacking financial stability — particularly hard.
“The rules associated with these benefits can discourage us from getting a job, or doing different things and making different decisions because we’re afraid we’re going to lose what benefits we do have,” said Bagosy, a 31-year-old mother of two.
Survivor benefits have been paid to those left behind by America’s wars, in some capacity, since the late 1700s and have changed accordingly after each of the country’s major conflicts. Now, long after the Continental Congress established a seven-year pension for the widows of Revolutionary War officers, the family members of Iraq and Afghanistan’s dead are still struggling with a slew of taxes, lump sums, lifelong payments that dissuade an early remarriage and, above all, closure.
Bagosy’s first encounter with the benefits system came in the form of her husband’s military life insurance, a $400,000 payment she received in a lump sum. She saw it as “blood money” and tried to get rid of it.
“I tried to run,” she said.
And Bagosy ran, using the money to travel back and forth across the United States, flying from North Carolina to Florida, Texas, Nevada and California. Staying in one place too long made her feel anxious, and so any time she could get away, she would.
Soon after Bagosy unpacked her bags for the last time, she began dating another Marine. It was a relationship, she said, that was fueled in part by some of the final words uttered by her husband the day before he took his life.
“It’s time for me to step back and let another man take over my family,” Bagosy recounted her husband saying.
The relationship quickly soured when she realized that the man she was dating was interested only in her survivor benefits, something that widows say is a common occurrence.
Eventually, Bagosy concluded that another relationship was not what would allow her to move on.
“I finally realized that finding that man that my husband spoke about was not going to be what fixed my family,” Bagosy said. “I’m the only one who can heal my family, and after four years, that’s what I’ve done.”
Bagosy now receives about $1,500 a month and has used the benefits to keep herself afloat and her kids in school. She said that she is “grateful for everything” but also that she realizes the benefits might not last forever. In the early months after her husband’s death, she realized that if she met a man she loved, marrying him would mean losing her benefits.
Under federal law, only surviving spouses who remarry after the age of 57 retain their annuities.
“I saw it as unfair and a slap in the face,” Bagosy said.
With time, Bagosy said, she has come to terms with what remarriage would mean. But she and other survivors remain dogged by another rule, what they have come to call the “Widow’s Tax.”
The Widow’s Tax is the offset created by two benefits that cancel each other out when they are paid simultaneously to a surviving spouse. One is a survivor benefit that works much like a pension and is overseen by the Department of Defense. The other is a payment provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs to survivors of troops who died during their time in service.
The law stipulates that for each dollar paid out for one benefit, the other benefit be reduced by a dollar — to avoid “double-dipping.” But in the case of many survivors whose spouses joined the military after Sept. 11, 2001, the result is that payments are sharply reduced.
One widow, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she is still in the military, said she receives only $14 a month after the two benefits cancel each other out.
“What was I supposed to do? Go to McDonald’s once a month?” she asked. “It was tough to wrap my head around that was what my husband’s life was worth.”
Bagosy, whose children were 4 and 2 when her husband died, had the option of splitting her benefits — she would receive one while her children would receive the other.
She chose to divide the two annuities. It was a lifelong decision she had to make mere days after her husband died.
“You’re being asked to make this decision in the middle of one of the most difficult times of our lives,” Bagosy said. “We don’t even care about the money at that point. All we care about is that we’re never going to see our husband again.”
Bagosy’s choice to transfer some of her benefits to her kids would mean that the benefit given to her children would be taxable under federal and state law. The decision was an obvious one, for if she hadn’t divided the two, she would have been subject to the Widow’s Tax.
“The fact that our kids get taxed is insane to me,” Bagosy said. “It’s insane.”
In the months after Bagosy’s husband’s death, a friend told her to look at the blog of another widow whose husband had died two months earlier. The blog, A Little Pink in a World of Camo, is run by Rachel Porto, whose husband, Marine Cpl. Jon Porto, died when his armored vehicle rolled over into a canal in Marjah, Afghanistan, on March 14, 2010.
Because both women still lived in Camp Lejeune, Bagosy reached out and set up a lunch date, eventually meeting up with Porto and her daughter Ariana, then 6 months old, at a Red Robin diner off-base. The two quickly became close.
“My memory from the first year after Jonny died is pretty much gone,” Porto said. “But I’ll always remember meeting Katie.”
Like Bagosy, Porto was awash in a mess of paperwork in the weeks that followed her husband’s death, eventually deciding to split her two benefits between her and her daughter. She would receive the one while her 2-month-old would receive the taxable other.
“My daughter ended up owing hundreds of dollars in taxes,” Porto said. “And the thing is, no one knows how to do taxes for us.”
In April 2013, Porto and 3-year-old Ariana went to the H&R Block in their local Wal-Mart to file their returns.
“The lady cried,” Porto said. “I handed her my paperwork, and she looked down and just started crying.”
“Tax time is our nightmare” Porto added. “Widows hate it.”
To deal with the confusion surrounding their benefits, surviving spouses have set up Facebook groups that allow those spread across the country to help make sense of what they’re owed and learn about what some are trying to do to abolish the Widow’s Tax.
In one Facebook group, Porto pointed out a post detailing H.R. 32 and S. 734, two pieces of legislation that would eliminate the Widow’s Tax.
Most widows are pessimistic about the chances of either bill passing.
“Every year we get these bills and rack up these sponsors. . . . We thought this would be resolved by now,” said Suzanne Gerstner of Gold Star Wives of America, a nationally recognized group of war widows. “But unless Congress makes this a priority and quits putting us at the back of the line, it’s not going to happen.”
Until then, widows like Bagosy and Porto leaf through their dog-eared binders with “the days ahead” scrawled on the side, attempting to make their way through what seems like an endless bureaucratic maze.
“It’s like they want us to stay in our little, sad bubbles,” Porto said. “We’re young and we’re supposed to be sad forever?”