What is the ‘Widow’s Tax’? How Surviving Military Families are Denied Full Benefits.

We’ve all heard that freedom isn’t free. But for over 65,000 military families, neither is death. Kristen Fenty, the wife of my husband’s first battalion commander, LTC Joseph Fenty, has been tirelessly advocating for years on behalf of other military spouses who are being denied their full survivor benefits because of the so-called ‘widow’s tax’.

LTC Joseph Fenty was killed in Afghanistan just 21 days short of being retirement eligible – he served nearly 20 years before giving the ultimate sacrifice for his country. Kristen and Joe’s only child, a daughter, was born one month prior to his death. I’ve written a lot about that deployment – it’s appalling to know that surviving military families are being denied benefits they rightfully earned. As Kristen said back in 2012, “It’s infuriating to think that something my husband earned is not going to his family. It demeans his service.

What is the military ‘widow’s tax’? The issue lies with how the government deals with two separate military survivor payouts – the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) and the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) program. Under the current system, surviving family members (e.g. the ‘widows’) who receive both the SBP and DIC end up having their SBP reduced dollar for dollar for the amount they receive in DIC, regardless of how much the service member paid into the SPB during their career. An estimated 65,000 families are affected by this offset.

What is the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP)? According to the Department of Defense, the SPB “allows a retiree to ensure, after death, a continuous lifetime annuity for their dependents. The annuity which is based on a percentage of retired pay is called SBP and is paid to an eligible beneficiary. It pays your eligible survivors an inflation-adjusted monthly income.” Simply put, the SBP is a form of insurance.

What is the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) program? According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) program “is a tax free monetary benefit paid to eligible survivors of military service members who died in the line of duty or eligible survivors of Veterans whose death resulted from a service-related injury or disease.” It is commonly referred to within the military community as the ‘death benefit’.

Wait – so military families are encouraged to pay into an insurance program only to be legally prohibited from collecting it should the unthinkable happen? Yes. Current federal law requires survivors to forfeit part or all of their purchased SBP annuity if they also qualify for the DIC program. As a reminder, the DIC is for eligible survivors of military service members who died in the line of duty or whose death resulted from a service-related injury or disease.

Is this a recent development? Sadly, no. Advocates for the repeal of the ‘widow’s tax’ have been fighting Congress to fix the loophole for decades. The military’s “widows tax” does not discriminate against age, race, creed, or branch of service. It is simply a way for the government to squeeze more money from military families once their service member has either been killed in action or has died from a service-related injury or disease.

Kristen Fenty and her daughter on Capitol Hill in 2008

What is being done about it? Due to the tireless efforts of survivors and advocates for the elimination of the ‘widow’s tax’, legislation has been introduced in the past four Congress sessions (2011, 2013, 2015, 2017). Unfortunately, despite having significant sponsorship, it continuously failed to even receive a House vote.

It has never even made it to a vote? Seriously? What about in 2019? Currently there are two pieces of legislation with sponsorship – the Military Surviving Spouses Equity Act (H.R.553) in the House and the Military Widow’s Tax Elimination Act (S.622) in the Senate. Both proposed pieces of legislation have bipartisan support and would eliminate the provision.

So what happened on the hill yesterday? Senator Doug Jones (D, Alabama) stood on the Senate floor before the vote on the annual defense authorization measure in effort to add a repeal of the ‘widow’s tax’ (see video below). He called for unanimous consent to force a vote but Senate leaders wouldn’t allow it as an amendment in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman, Jim Inhofe (R, Oklahoma), and one of the 74 co-sponsors blocked the parliamentary move over financial questions and other anonymous objections. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated the legislation would cost approximately $5.7 billion over the next decade. Senator Inhofe stated, “I support and will continue to support the permanent fix. It’s going to happen. We’re going to do it … but it can’t be on this bill.

What happens next? Despite advocates having fought to repeal the widow’s tax for years, this is the first time it has garnered this amount of attention in the general public. Senator Jones said yesterday that he has talked to House leaders in effort to bring up the bill in that chamber and that he will continue to fight on behalf of Gold Star families, whether it be as a standalone measure or as an amendment on an existing bill.

Kristen and her daughter in 2019

What can I do to help? Contact your representatives and urge them to support measures to end the ‘widow’s tax’. The Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) has a form that you can fill out to send a message through it’s Legislative Action Center. Use the hashtag #AxeWidowsTax when tweeting about the issue. Inform your family and friends about the issue. And don’t forget to say thank you to the members of Congress who have expressed their support.

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Our Active Guard Reserve (AGR) Experience

My husband has almost 15 years of active service in the Army – the latter half as part of the Army Reserve AGR program. Because there is often some confusion about the AGR program and how my husband ended up in what some consider the best kept secret in the Army, I thought I’d write a post all about our AGR experience and answer some questions about the program. As a general disclaimer – please note that everything discussed in this post is a reflection of our personal experience and it not necessarily reflective of other people’s experience with the program.

Okay, first of all, what exactly is AGR? AGR stands for Active Guard Reserve. The Army Reserve has an AGR program and each state has their own National Guard AGR Program, which is different than the federally-run Army Reserve AGR program. My husband is in the Army Reserve AGR program so this post will only reflect information regarding that particular program.

Wait – your husband isn’t active duty? My husband is no longer considered Active Component. He ETSed (Expiration of Term of Service) in 2008 and formally separated from his ‘regular’ active duty service in the Army. However – as an officer in the AGR Program, he is considered active duty. Confused? Read on!

Your husband got out of the Army? Yup. It wasn’t an easy decision. In 2007, he returned home from a difficult 16-month deployment to Afghanistan. A lot has been written about his unit, such as the first part of The Outpost by Jack Tapper (which is currently being filmed as a movie – Orlando Bloom is playing Ben Keating) and various posts on this blog – like this one. He really wanted 12 months of dwell time (at home) before deploying again, but all signs were pointing to him having to deploy again less than a year after returning home from a 16-month deployment.

A few weeks after he returned home, we were preparing to PCS for him to attend Captains Career Course (CCC) across the country. But then he was informed by his branch that he’d almost certainly deploy immediately upon CCC graduation because his MOS was a critical need for MiTTs (Military Transition Teams). That meant that he’d more than likely would’ve deployed again only 7 months after returning home from a 16 month deployment. So because the Army couldn’t guarantee him 12 months at home (one year dwell time to mentally reset), he dropped his ETS paperwork. To this day, it is one of his decisions that I respect the most – he knew he wasn’t in the right headspace to deploy so soon after a hard deployment filled with a lot of casualties. It was a very tough decision but it was the right one.

He ETSed at the beginning of 2008 and signed a two-year stabilization agreement with the North Carolina National Guard in order to fulfill the rest of his commitment (4 years Active Duty and 4 years IRR (Individual Ready Reserve)) of his ROTC scholarship. When he ETSed, we moved to Raleigh, North Carolina and settled into civilian life for a few months. He wasn’t happy in his civilian job so when the North Carolina National Guard offered him active duty orders, he jumped at the chance (with my support, of course). My husband then attended CCC, took command of a Company, and then he deployed with them to Afghanistan (two years after returning home from his previous one, which was more than enough time to reset). When he returned home from that deployment, he transitioned to the Army Reserve and applied to the AGR program soon after. And before we knew it, he accepted his first AGR assignment and he became an active duty soldier again in the eyes of the government.

What made your husband decide to apply to the AGR program? After all, he’d already left active duty, right? I may be biased but I think my husband is an amazing soldier. He enjoys serving his country and being part of something greater then himself. When we reflect back on the 2007-2008 timeframe, it’s very likely that he would have remained ‘regular’ active duty if a just few (seemingly small) things played out a little differently. But that’s life. In fact – when he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel last month, he exclaimed, “How did this even happen? I got out as a Captain!” in his speech to a room full of laughter.

Over the years, we’ve learned that we’re not that motivated by money – acquiring wealth isn’t a life goal of ours. Could he be earning more money if he hadn’t chose to back to active duty? Possibly. But we’re comfortable and don’t mind the smaller footprint this lifestyle affords. Don’t me wrong – it’s not a fairytale – there are plenty of times when I say that I’m fine and I’m not. That being said, there is a lot about the military lifestyle that we like and that meshes well with our outlook on life. We enjoy living in new places and do not have the desire to settle down anywhere (we haven’t found ‘our’ place yet). If we were absolutely content staying in one place and wanting to put down roots, he would not have applied to the AGR program because as you can see with the next answer – our life is not much different than when he was Active Component.

How is AGR different than regularly active duty Army? It’s not really – at least in our experience. Some people are surprised when they learn that my husband is AGR because our life is no different than when he was Active Component (e.g. ‘regular’ Army) except that the majority of his positions are in support of Reserve units, rather than Active Component ones. That being said, the majority of the organizations he has worked for have been a mix of both Active Component and Reserve soldiers.

On paper, our life is no different than when my husband was regular active duty Army – we still move every 1-3 years, the rank structure and promotion schedule are exactly the same, he is paid the same, our benefits are the same, his uniform is the same, and he is still deployable. He is active duty. The only difference is that instead of supporting the Active Component, he is supporting the Reserve Component.

If your husband likes being active duty so much, why doesn’t he just go back to the regular active Army? He has sort of created a niche for himself within the AGR program. It’s a smaller community, which we like, and it’s been good for our family. And depending on the needs of the Army (strength of force, national security, foreign policy outlook, etc…), it’s not always easy to ‘go back in’ – a lot depends on the political climate of the country at any given point in time. When he ETS’ed, the Army Reserve AGR program was nowhere on his radar. But he stumbled upon an opportunity and it has absolutely been a great fit for our family.

Do you miss anything about regular active duty? Like I said, our lives are not much different – if at all. But there is something special about being part of a Combat Brigade community when there is a dangerous war being fought. The intense camaraderie, the tradition, and the sense of belonging we experienced during his time with the 10th Mountain Division isn’t something we’ve experienced to that caliber since. That being said – we still experience a lot of those things and have made great friends along my husband’s AGR journey.

Okay – that’s probably enough for now. I do hope this post helps to clarify some of the misconceptions about the Army Reserve AGR program. If you have any more questions or want to chat about it in more detail, please don’t hesitate to contact me!

When I Say I’m Fine and I’m Not

Last week was a not my greatest showing. If I were on stage in a bedazzled gown competing for a ‘scholarship’ (::eye roll::) awarded for irritability and annoyance, I would’ve been a contender for at least the Top 10 – no swimsuit parade necessary. I was frustrated. I was angry. And I was exhausted from trying to argue with myself. I did my best to hide it from my husband and kids but my poker face failed me and my inner turmoil was noticeable. So when Clay asked me if everything was okay, I responded with, “Yeah – I’m fine.”

Except I wasn’t fine. And he knew it.

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Despite growing up in a two-parent household with three younger siblings, there were moments when I felt like the people tasked with loving me the most didn’t really know me. By all accounts, my childhood was happy. I played with my siblings, I had plenty of friends, and I actively pursued sports. But despite having the outward appearance of an active and social existence, I slowly came to the realization that no one truly got me. I was the ‘quiet’ one in my family – I devoured books and often found myself retreating into the comfort of my own thoughts. And a move across the country during my middle school years pushed me deeper inside my head.

I’m sure the dichotomy I experienced as a teenager is far from unique. I often felt like the true me existed somewhere in the space between the image I projected and the thoughts that never left my head. Even though I had a boyfriend, friends, a job I loved, and a busy calendar in high school, I’d feel lonely because I felt that no one really knew who I was – and perhaps that’s because – like most teenagers – I was still discovering who I was as a person.

And then I met Clay during my first few weeks away at college. Over those formative years, our relationship grew into something that I’ve struggled to put into words since. We spent hours talking about anything and everything. We laughed when no one else did. We learned how to effectively communicate and create spaces where we could retreat when we wanted to leave the rest of the world behind. I finally had an understanding of what life is like when someone truly gets you.

18 years later – it’s safe to say that he still gets me. So when I say that I’m fine and I’m really not – he knows.

In my defense, I said everything was fine because my frustrations were Army-induced and I knew that there was absolutely nothing either one of us could do that would immediately alleviate my desire to continuously scream “It’s not fair!” while stomping both feet. You know those little twinges of jealousy that begin to sprout when someone announces that the military is sending them to an amazing place? Or when a spouse is able to have a fantastic career? Or when the family gets to experience something amazing at the hands of the military? Normally I am able to prevent those little jealousy buds from sprouting into something bigger but lately I’ve been cultivating an environment inside my head that was allowing them to thrive.

All of these unproductive, poisonous, and infuriating thoughts that I’d unsuccessfully fought off came to a head last week. So on Thursday night, we put the kids to bed and then opened up a bottle of wine as we settled in for a conversation that we went into knowing it would be difficult and likely filled with statements that could be misinterpreted and hurtful.

I consider myself pragmatic. I understand that the Army does not owe me anything. I get it. As a spouse – I am nothing in their eyes. If anything – me and my children are financial burdens and obstacles for the Army to get around in order to have more of my husband and his time. This May marks 15 years in the Army for Clay. And since I’ve been in the picture since his cadet days, I’ve been by his side for the majority of the ups and downs – often times with an annoyingly positive attitude. I’ve encouraged him to compete for difficult positions. I’ve hugged him tight before sending him off to war. I’ve turned down job offers because we received last minute orders across the country. I’ve consoled children because they miss their dad. I’ve gone weeks without communication. I’ve learned to be flexible and how to manage last minute changes to plans. And I’ve learned to give when the Army asks for more.

To Clay’s credit – I’ve felt like an active participant when it comes to his career. Whenever he is presented with an opportunity, we discuss it and make a decision together. But there is only so much control we have when it comes to the Army – beyond choosing to stay or leave. It’s no secret that I dream of living overseas. Honestly – there have been times when the prospect of doing so is the only thing that keeps me happily grinning and bearing it for the sake of the Army. At times it has been so close that I can taste the hefeweizen and chianti. But then something ‘better’ for his career comes along and he is given an offer he can’t refuse.

I told Clay as tears of frustration poured from me that it is absolutely infuriating that I am sacrificing so much for the sake of his thriving career in hopes of ‘someday’ getting stationed somewhere I really want to live. When we were in our twenties, it was easier to accept the not-so-great aspects of the military – after all, we had our entire lives ahead of us. But now we’re in our mid-thirties – I no longer feel invincible. Time is slipping through my fingers like handfuls of sand. I told my husband how there are times when I wake up feeling like a barbell is on my chest – weighing me down and preventing me from realizing my hopes and dreams. And I told him how the death of Luke Perry has only exasperated these feelings.

Growing up, I’d go into the family den and sink into the brown velour couch as I turned on the TV. As soon as Beverly Hills 90210 came on the screen, I’d set the ‘jump’ button on the remote to ensure that I’d have a quick getaway should one of my parents come into the room. They didn’t approve of their 9-year-old daughter watching the exploits of high school students in California but nothing was going to keep me from Dylan McKay on Wednesday nights. I am the age now where I think of 52 as young.  I explained to Clay that Luke Perry’s untimely death is just another sad reminder that we aren’t guaranteed time.

Perhaps one of the more disheartening aspects of my little breakdown last week is that if you were to ask me if I like having a husband in the military, I’d answer, “Yes!” approximately 94% of the time. I honestly do not currently desire a life on the ‘other side’ and do not wish for my husband to throw in the towel. But it sure would be nice if the Army threw a little carrot my way. Moving overseas is not in our cards anytime soon. It’s a tough pill to swallow. And his next assignment will likely be in a place that I don’t really want to live. I’ll make the best of it. I always do – complete with a smile. But I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t growing tired of doing so.

Clay and I talked a lot about our future that night as we shared a bottle of Restless Earth cabernet sauvignon. He understood my frustrations and expressed his own frustrations with having a career that demanded so many areas of his life. I explained that I just need these moments to wallow and stomp my feet because it can be incredibly difficult to constantly be molding my goals to fit within the confines of his ever-changing career. I am human, after all.

Last week, I wasn’t fine. But I am now.

What We Liked Best

There is really no way to know that you’re in the good old days until you’ve actually left them. The art of looking back fondly is a somewhat idiosyncratic effect of human nature. We always seem to have a more idealized take on our experiences when we’re looking at them through the rearview mirror. While we have certainly preferred some locations over others, when I think about all the places that we have lived together over the years I’m able to affectionally recall good times and assemble a highlight reel that features what we liked best about each area.

This is my highlight reel.

Clemson, South Carolina Whenever we roll into a new duty station, neighbors have little trouble determining where we went to college. Go Tigers! It has become a running joke among some of our friends, “Hey – did you guys know that we went to Clemson?” because we never shy from talking about our beloved alma mater. Because we got married during winter break my senior year (thanks Army!), we count Clemson as the first place we lived together, even though we didn’t actually live together our first six months of marriage (again, thanks Army!).

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Tillman Hall is considered the building that is synonymous with Clemson University. The dorm that we lived in when we met, Clemson House (RIP), overlooked Tillman Hall and Bowman Field. We would cut across the open grass as we walked to class and spent many afternoons playing catch or frisbee in front of Military Heritage Plaza, which happens to be where Clay received his first salute as an officer. We also enjoyed hiking at Table Rock, walking around downtown Greenville, and

Fort Huachuca, Arizona Clay proposed shortly after he commissioned. We were engaged about a week before he left for OBC (now referred to as Basic Officer Leaders Course) at Fort Huachuca. I did not accompany him to OBC because I had a great summer job in my hometown and it made better financial sense for Clay to live in the officer barracks since I’d be returning to Clemson for my senior year of college well before he graduated. I visited a few times and thoroughly enjoyed the area surrounded Fort Huachuca. We ate at the Mesquite Tree (sadly now closed), visited Bisbee (best coffee ever), and hiked in the Coronado National Forest. And of course – you can’t visit Fort Huachuca without visiting Tombstone – we took the kids there during our epic southwest road trip a couple of years ago – I’ll be your huckleberry indeed.

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Fort Drum, New York The most obvious place for the Army to send Clay after spending months in the Arizona desert was of course snowy Fort Drum, New York – home of the 10th Mountain Division. We got married and after I graduated, I joined him up at the Canadian border. We spent three and a half years in the north country and ended up loving almost everything the area has to offer. We lived in Sackets Harbor, which remains the favorite place we’ve ever lived to this day.

We would walk to the Sackets Harbor Brewing Company for drinks, eat brunch at Tin Pan Galley, and catch a show at the (now defunct) comedy club. We kayaked on Lake Ontario, walked around the historic battlefield, and skied at Dry Hill. Yes – the winters were cold and white but the summers were some of the best we’ve ever experienced.

Raleigh, North Carolina After Clay ETSed from the Army and joined the National Guard (oh yes – Clay got out of the Army back in 2008…boy is that a story!), we ended up in a suburb of Raleigh, North Carolina. We bought our first home, Clay ended up going back to being a full-time soldier, and we welcomed our first child into the world. While we have no plans to ever choose to live in that part of the country again, there were things that we really liked – like the Raleigh Flea Market at the state fair grounds and the Raleigh Farmers Market.

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Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Say what you will about Lawton but the Wichita Wildlife Refuge is up there as one of the coolest places we’ve ever lived near. Whenever we wanted, we could get up close and personal with buffalo and long-horned steer which was pretty amazing.

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Fort Leavenworth, Kansas We went to Fort Leavenworth knowing that we’d probably enjoy our year there but we were blown away by how much we loved Kansas City. It really has it all – music, food, sports, museums, and some of the nicest people we’ve ever met.

We loved Union Station, the National WW1 Museum, and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. If Kansas City were closer to mountains or water, we’d consider moving there in a heartbeat after this Army ride is over. That being said, we certainly wouldn’t complain if the Army sent us to Fort Leavenworth again due to the proximity to Kansas City and the fact that it really is a lovely and beautiful post.

San Antonio, Texas If I had to sum up the year that my family spent in San Antonio, Texas in one sentence, it’d be: We didn’t love living there but if you haven’t been there, you should totally go visit! Most are surprised by our confession because San Antonio has such a great reputation – it’s a city certainly not lacking in culture and attitude.

We loved going to the Tejas Rodeo in Bulverde on a Saturday night. We’d grab a Shiner Bock and Frito pie and watch the traditional rodeo from the stands for the quintessential Texas experience. We also enjoyed Guadalupe River State Park and of course all of the food!

Washington DC There is our second time around being stationed near our nation’s capital. Because we’ve lived here the longest out of any other place (almost three years the last go-around and we’re currently on year two this time around), it feels the most like home by default. Of course we love spending time in the city, the National Mall, and the Smithsonian. But we love the surrounding area as well.

One of our favorite things to do as a family in this area is hike at Great Falls Park, which is where Potomac River “builds up speed and force as it falls over a series of steep, jagged rocks and flows through the narrow Mather Gorge.” There are multiple trails with varying degrees of difficulty (but none are really all that difficult) with various look-out points along the way. So basically it is perfect for younger kids.

We are slated to leave Washington DC next summer so only time will tell what we will like best at the next place the Army sends us.