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Oversight in Law Bars Benefits to 'Forgotten Widows' of Reservists Killed in Action

February 07, 1988|D.W. PAGE | Associated Press

PORTSMOUTH, Va. — They call themselves the "forgotten widows," the wives of reserve military men who died from 1972 to 1978 before turning 60, and they believe the government their husbands fought to defend owes them something.

Iva Ciccotti's husband was a gunnery sergeant in the Marine Corps. He saw combat in World War II. As a member of the active reserves, he was recalled to duty and fought in the Korean War. He retired from the reserves in 1972 after more than 22 years of service.

Evelyn Miller's husband won the Bronze Star for heroism in World War II. He spent 34 1/2 years in uniform before retiring from the Virginia National Guard in 1975 as a lieutenant colonel.

Eunice Moore's husband saw combat in World War II; so did the husbands of Sue Collins and Shirley Glazer. Francis Weekley's husband spent a year as a prisoner of war.

Because of an oversight by Congress, the women, now all in their 60s, are denied the percentage of their husbands' pensions that every other widow of a reservist gets.

Decade of Petitioning

And after a decade of petitioning Congress, writing letters and trying to publicize what they believe to be an injustice, they are no closer to winning those pensions than they were when they first discovered the government had excluded them.

"Maybe the problem is that there are not enough of us. Maybe the problem is we don't have enough money to hire a lawyer. Maybe we just have not talked to the right people . . . whatever. But we're not quitting," Iva Ciccotti said.

In 1972, Congress created the Survivors Benefit Plan as a complement to Social Security for retired military personnel. Those retiring on or after Sept. 21, 1972, were automatically qualified. Under the plan, widows would receive up to 55% of the retirement pay. The plan was funded by monthly premiums withheld from the retiree's check.

To qualify, a person has to have 20 years in the service and be 60. If he dies before reaching 60--before starting to receive benefit checks--the widow receives nothing.

To correct that, Congress passed legislation to provide survivor benefits if the husband died before his 60th birthday. That law went into effect Sept. 30, 1978--but was not retroactive.

Misses by 28 Days

Retired Gunnery Sgt. Ascanio Ciccotti died Sept. 2, 1978, just 28 days short of qualifying his widow for pension benefits.

Since the day she found she was not entitled to those benefits, Mrs. Ciccotti has been fighting Washington, D.C.

"My husband--all our husbands--earned those pensions. They believed we would be taken care of. We are not giving up. It is something that our government owes our husbands," she said.

The government disagrees.

The Department of Defense was required to study the problem as part of its 1986 funding bill. In that study, the department concluded:

"The issue of cost cannot be avoided. There is no possible way to establish retroactive coverage . . . and still meet the previous congressional intent that . . . coverage be met at no cost to the Government. By providing such a Government-funded benefit . . . in the case of the pre-1978 Reserve Widows, the original intent would be reversed and the federal deficit would be increased."

The Defense Department estimated 5,421 women would qualify for the benefits.

Cost Put at $27 Million

The study, however, did not use that figure to compute the estimated cost of the benefit. According to the department, the cost of full entitlement would be nearly $27 million, if additional benefits were paid to more than 12,000 women, a figure which includes the exempted widows as well as those widowed before 1978 who do qualify for pensions.

The women wonder how their group could overburden the federal budget.

"There was enough money in the budget last year for lawmakers to give themselves $12,000 pay raises," said Mrs. Ciccotti.

Shirley Glazer noted that U.S. taxpayers contribute to the defense of such countries as Japan and West Germany--"but Congress says there is not enough money to pay the benefits our husbands earned in combat . . . "

"They (members of Congress) want to wait until we're all dead. They pat us on the head, then they send us home and forget about us," she added.

"The silence," Eunice Moore said, "has been overwhelming."

But some congressional workers think this will be the year something is done.

'Finally Have the Support'

"I think they finally have the support that is needed to get something done," said Evelyn Frazier, press secretary for Rep. Norman Sisisky (D-Va.). Frazier said legislation was being drafted to "relieve this inequity."

It is not the first time legislation has been drafted or submitted. Iva Ciccotti has an inch-thick file of correspondence from senators and representatives.

Rep. Hank Brown (R-Colo.), introduced legislation as early as 1983, co-sponsored by Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.). It was Brown's amendment to the 1986 defense authorization bill that forced the study of the situation.

Brown's press secretary, Joel Kassiday, said Brown tried twice last year to get Rep. Beverly B. Byron (D-Md.), chairman of the subcommittee on Military Personnel and Compensation, to hold hearings on the matter. "We were disappointed that there was no time for the hearings," Kassiday said, "but we'll try again this year."

Sees Nation's Responsibility

Brown, who served in the Navy in Vietnam, believes the country has a responsibility to the women, Kassiday said.

"It was best said by Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address when he said it was the responsibility of the people 'to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and for his orphan.' "

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