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Byline: Bill Hillburg Washington Bureau

Debra Kraus of Sherman Oaks describes the death of her husband, a Vietnam veteran, as ``a pain that is always with you and gets deeper as the years go by.''

As president of the Golden State Chapter of the Gold Star Wives of America, a national support and advocacy group, Kraus is working to ease the pain for thousands of her sister war widows by helping them secure a little-publicized government benefit.

Some 517,457 surviving spouses, the vast majority female and elderly, were receiving Dependency and Indemnity benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs as of April. The program, limited to those whose spouses died in combat or as a result of service-related injuries and diseases, pays a tax-free benefit of $861 per month and offers limited access to the VA health care system.

Alberta Hagerty of Granada Hills, treasurer of the Golden State Chapter, which meets in Glendale and draws its 90 members from the San Fernando, San Gabriel and Antelope valleys, said there are an estimated 15,000 eligible widows nationwide who are not in the program.

Similar estimates are used by the VA, which has no organized method of communicating directly with the nation's veterans and their families.

``It's so frustrating to know that there are so many women out there, many of them in need, who could be helped by DIC but are unaware it exists,'' said Hagerty, whose husband, Air Force Maj. Edward Duane Hagerty, was killed in 1951 while serving in the Korean War.

Widowed at the age of 24 with children aged 6 months and 2 1/2 years, Alberta Hagerty never remarried and supported her family as a teacher.

The Gold Star Wives - named for the symbol that has designated the loss of a loved one from World War II through Operation Desert Storm - blame Congress, shifting policies and VA bureaucracy for keeping the potential beneficiaries of DIC benefits in the dark.

Created after World War II to assist the wives and children of the more than 400,000 Americans who gave the ultimate sacrifice, DIC has undergone a number of revisions.

Benefits for spouses were originally linked to the rank and pay level of a deceased veteran. Hagerty, now a widow for more than 50 years, recalled that cost-of-living adjustments were slow in coming.

Under original DIC rules, benefits were permanently forfeited if the survivor remarried.

That regulation was later changed to allow resumption of DIC if the recipient was widowed again. In 1977, resumption of payments was extended to persons whose subsequent marriages had ended in divorce.

The cruelest blow to spouses of the nation's fallen came in 1990, when President George H. W. Bush and Congress signed off on a $500 billion budget reduction plan that included a cut off of DIC to all new applicants. The program was reinstated in October 1998, following extensive lobbying by veterans groups and the efforts of Rep. Bob Filner, D-Chula Vista.

Filner said he sponsored the bill after complaints from many of his San Diego County constituents. He called his bill ``Give Romance A Chance.''

``A lot of war widows I had heard from wanted to remarry but were afraid to do so and lose their benefits forever,'' he said.

Widows who had been affected by the eight-year cutoff were allowed to apply for DIC benefits. Payments for new applicants were limited to a flat rate of $861 and were made retroactive only to the date of their application.

The cutoff in DIC came as many World War II and Korean War widows were going though the pain of the loss of another spouse. According to the VA, the 5.5 million surviving World War II veterans, the youngest of whom are now in their 70s, are dying at a rate of 1,100 per day. Korea vets, many of whom had previously served in World War II, are also rapidly passing from the scene.

Statistics on war widows nationwide and in California are difficult to obtain.

According to the VA, California was a major staging area for World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and it now has the nation's largest concentration of military veterans. Many military personnel and their families settled in the Golden State during and after their service and many war widows found work in the defense industry.

California also had the highest number of casualties of any state during the Korean War (7,642) and Vietnam conflict (5,448).

Demographic trends indicate the number of war widows, including those who have lost second spouses, will likely rise in the years ahead. Overall 2000 Census totals for California showed a nearly even breakdown of the sexes, 16.87 million men and 16.97 women. But, at age 65, females outnumbered males 20.6 million to 14.4 million.

A study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicated that, for a couple in which both partners are age 65, the wife has a 50 percent higher chance of living to age 80 than her husband.

``Tracking veterans and their spouses is very difficult,'' said Diane Fuller, a VA official in charge of outreach programs. ``We know who is enrolled in our programs and receiving benefits. But with spouses who remarry and leave the program, you have changes of names and address.''

Filner said the VA should be doing a better job of publicizing the benefits.

``I don't understand how an agency dedicated to service can have so many problems getting the word out,'' the congressman said. ``We have not done a good job of honoring our contract with our veterans.''

Terry Jemison, a VA spokesman, said the agency faces an ongoing challenge when it comes to measuring its clientele.

``There are 25.5 million veterans in this country, all of whom are eligible for our VA assistance, but only 5 million are enrolled in our health care program,'' said Jemison. ``Many veterans have other care options or have not needed services, but our mission is to potentially serve every veteran and qualified family member.''

Fuller said the VA's outreach efforts rely heavily on its own local offices, as well as groups like the Gold Star Wives, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.

She is currently working on a program involving the nation's funeral directors, who already work with the agency on burial arrangements at veterans cemeteries.

``We have to be careful with our outreach,'' added Fuller, who said the VA has added more than 4,900 spouses to its DIC rolls since the program was reinstated in 1998. ``We don't want to raise false hopes and expectations.''

She noted that several media reports had given the false impression that widows of all military veterans were eligible for the benefits.

``There's so many women who just don't know about DIC. We do what we can to help,'' said Virginia Elmo of Carson, president of the 170-member Long Beach Chapter of the Gold Star Wives. ``If you're not involved with a veterans group, its hard to get information.''

Elmo said she was informed about her DIC benefits though the Gold Star Wives. She first learned of the support group's existence in 1993 while she was making arrangements for the interment of her husband, a disabled veteran, at Riverside National Cemetery.

``We're working with women from all eras, from World War II to Desert Storm,'' said Mary Miller of Long Beach, whose husband died while on active duty with the Army Corps of Engineers during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Her current DIC benefits were restored after a subsequent marriage ended in divorce.

Miller said her main concern is with widows from World War II and the Korean War.

``They are really getting up there in age and a lot of them don't have much money,'' she said.

``They can also benefit greatly from the VA's prescription drug benefit. They don't get that coverage with Medicare and drugs are a major expense.''

Local members of the Gold Star Wives, who also have chapters in Ventura and San Bernardino, said the DIC problem is just one of many faced by survivors attempting to claim services promised by the government to veterans and their families.

Alberta Hagerty said she has never been able to settle a claim, involving both the VA and Pentagon bureaucracies, related to her late husband's rank and pay scale.

``Just before he was killed, my husband was promoted from captain to major,'' she said. ``I had the paperwork, but they never increased my benefit and kept it at captain's level.''

Debra Kraus, who is launching a new campaign to get the word out to war widows on DIC benefits, recalled that she had no success in obtaining VA assistance for her husband.

He died in 1996 of cancer that was later officially linked to his exposure to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange. Kraus said her husband was exposed to Agent Orange while working as an administrator at a field hospital in Vietnam.

``We fought for medical help and benefits for 12 years while we fought the cancer,'' said Kraus, who began collecting DIC benefits only after the program was reinstated in 1998.

``The Vietnam War was never over for him and for us. After he died, the VA finally ruled that there was a link between Agent Orange and cancer. But it was too late for him.

``It's sad for me to realize that the VA did nothing for my husband in his lifetime, they are only doing for me,'' Kraus added. ``I don't want any more crimes of denial. We want to make sure that every widow gets the help she deserves.''


photo, box


(color) From left, war widows Ardyne Blackstone, Alberta Hagerty, Debra Kraus and Aida Renta hold the American flag given Kraus after the death of her Vietnam-vet husband. The California support group is trying to help war widows secure a little-publicized government benefit.

Tina Burch/Staff Photographer


SOURCES: Veterans Administration; Gold Star Wives of America; Daily News research
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:May 28, 2001

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