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Spouses of war casualties fight federal system to get benefits

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By The Washington Post
Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

On Mother's Day 2010, Marine Corps 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 disorder 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.

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, 31, a mother of two.

With time, she said, Bagosy 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 established 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 $14 a month after the 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.”

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