We Broke Our Promise to Take Care of Gold Star Families

A couple holds hands during a 2018 ceremony.
A couple holds hands during a 2018 ceremony. (Nebraska National Guard photo by Spc. Lisa Crawford)

Jennifer Barnhill is a columnist for Military.com writing about military families.

There is an unspoken promise America has whispered to service members and their families for centuries: If something happens to you, we will take care of your family.

And in many ways, as individuals, we honor this promise. Military spouses line up meal trains and show up to sit with families in grief. Commands go above and beyond to remember the fallen and to embrace their families. Service members pull all-nighters driving in their dress blues to deliver the worst possible news to unmarried partners because the military doesn't have a process to notify anyone other than the next of kin. We do our best to honor this promise, and we hope that others would do the same for us.

Because we don't often talk about this promise, we don't have to face up to the fact that, as a nation, we have not kept it well. Instead of living up to President Abraham Lincoln's promise to "care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan," we have left the widows, widowers and orphans to battle bureaucracy alone.

"I just remember talking to him on that Friday. ... I could just hear the smile in his voice. He was happy. He was doing what he wanted to do. And then on Sunday is when they knocked on my door and told me that he was gone," said Marcie Robertson, whose husband was killed in combat while deployed to Afghanistan in 2013.

Robertson had met her husband, Army Sgt. 1st Class Forrest Robertson, when they were in preschool. They dated throughout high school and got married a few days after 9/11 at a DMV temporarily housed in a JCPenney department store. Their military marriage was tested by the birth of children and countless wartime deployments.

"We were always gonna get married and have a renewal of vows or something when he retired, just to have a wedding. But we never did do that," she said. Instead, Robertson has spent the past 10 years trying to keep her family whole, something she says the military has made even more difficult.

"November of 2013, I lost my husband. In February of '14, right before Valentine's Day, I got my first letter asking me to verify that I had not remarried," said Robertson. This letter would be an annual reminder to Robertson -- and to all survivors who receive death benefits -- that if she wanted to remarry, her happiness would cost her.

According to current law, if a Gold Star or surviving spouse remarries before the age of 55, they will lose their survivor's benefits, including the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP), Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) payments, Tricare health coverage, access to VA home loans and much more, amounting to roughly $4,000 in payments per month, plus benefits.

This policy was drafted at a time when women did not work outside the home. Daughters were taken care of by fathers and wives by their husbands. They could not hold credit cards or take out a loan without a male sponsor. If a widow decided to remarry, the new husband would assume the responsibility to provide for them, making death benefits seemingly unnecessary.

However, this gendered policy no longer aligns with societal norms, even within the military community.

When a military spouse says I do, they are signing away roughly $200,000 in lost income over a 20-year military marriage, according to a 2018 White House report. But the costs are often far greater. The $200,000 figure is just the average loss and does not account for opportunity costs -- what that money would make if invested. It also doesn't account for lost retirement savings and vesting opportunities or periods of unemployment.

"Surviving spouses are military spouses first," said Ashlynne Haycock-Lohmann, deputy director for government and legislative affairs for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). Haycock-Lohmann has been advocating for surviving families for decades. In addition to her role at TAPS, she is also the Gold Star daughter of Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Haycock, who died while training to deploy in 2002, and Air Force veteran Nichole Haycock, who died by suicide in 2011.

"They'll never make up for that lost income," she said.

When the unimaginable happens, surviving spouses instantly go from unemployed or a secondary breadwinner to the only income. They suffer tragedy and scramble to find themselves within their new circumstances.

"I don't get remarried because I would be penalized financially," said Theresa Jones, a Gold Star Navy spouse. Jones' husband, Lt. Cmdr. Landon Jones, died in September 2013 after ocean waves hit his helicopter blades, causing the aircraft to break apart and fall from a flight deck into the Red Sea. Jones found out that her husband was presumed dead while she was scrolling Facebook.

Since receiving that notification, Jones has recounted the story of her husband's death countless times. She has told reporters that her then two-month-old son never met his father; how something called the widow's tax prevented her from accessing earned survivor benefits for years before she and other survivors fought for its repeal; and how a Trump administration tax policy cost their family thousands of dollars (survivors and advocates fixed this, too). And today, she is still talking about how the military is failing to live up to its promise to take care of survivors.

"It doesn't take away the fact that he died," she said. "That didn't go away. It still happened. It's a very antiquated way of thinking."

Today, Robertson and her fiancé Nelson live in fear that someone will report them, and she will lose her benefits. Although they are not married, the Department of Veterans Affairs can investigate if it believes that a survivor is "holding themselves out" to be married. According to current law, if a surviving spouse purports to be married, introducing themselves as a married couple to others, but isn't married on paper, they could still lose their benefits.

Because the average age of a surviving spouse is 25 years and 30 years from the age of 55, it is likely that many are holding themselves out to be married. It is estimated that only 5% of surviving spouses under the age of 55 officially remarry because of the financial losses. However, for many, remarriage provides support that goes beyond finances. They are looking to find the emotional stability that the loss of a loved one takes away.

"My kids deserve that security," said Robertson. "My kids deserve a father figure. My husband told me to get them one." Robertson and others are willing to wait to get married and have to weigh the loss of finances against knowing that they do not have the legal right to be there for their partner or their partner's children in an emergency.

"I think to myself, what if she chose not to remarry this remarkable man [or bring] me into this remarkable family just because she was worried that her benefits would run out? I think about how many kids and families have been sacrificed maybe just because of this very stupid, fixable mistake," said Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., in an April interview.

Phillips is a Gold Star child. Like many surviving children, he never knew his father, who was killed during the Vietnam War. Despite losing her benefits, his mother and stepfather were able to provide a loving and stable household. But in meeting other surviving families, he learned that his situation was unique.

"It shouldn't just take a stroke of good luck for somebody for a Gold Star child to end up with the opportunities that I had," Phillips said. He first introduced the Love Lives On Act in 2022 to help future surviving families.

The legislation was originally introduced in the Senate by Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., and has received support across the aisle. It would allow survivors to retain certain benefits upon remarriage, regardless of age.

There are two sections of this bill that carry the bulk of the cost: One is paid by the VA (DIC) and the other is paid out by the Defense Department (SBP). SBP is an insurance-like system that allows military spouses to collect an annuity equivalent to 55% of the member's retired pay.

According to written testimony submitted by VA officials to Congress, the department says it would need to budget $327.7 million over 10 years to pay for the most costly portion of the proposal, a figure that is significantly lower than the Congressional Budget Office's estimate, which is closer to $2 billion.

But advocates believe the law may actually save the government time and money.

"We think there should be cost savings taken into account," said Haycock-Lohmann. "One of the things we are not pursuing is Tricare and health insurance."

TAPS anticipates that, if the legislation passes, roughly 20% of surviving spouses would remarry and give up their VA-funded health insurance. This marriage "boom" would not likely have a big financial impact on government coffers. Because only 5% of spouses under 55 are remarried, the government is already paying nearly all surviving spouses.

"Why would a country that so deeply values that service, why would an American culture that so deeply values family, why would we penalize someone for remarrying?" said Phillips.

"Had I been divorced, and had these benefits in my [divorce] decree when he died, I could remarry at any point," said Robertson. According to the Uniformed Services Former Spouses' Protection Act (USFSPA), if a military spouse is awarded retirement pay during a divorce decree, they can retain that asset upon remarriage. Widows and widowers are not as fortunate.

It seems like a no-brainer. In addition to honoring the promise we made to service members, the proposed legislation would remove the administrative burden from the VA and families by no longer requiring survivors to verify each year that they have not remarried.

Although the VA publicly supports the bill, the decision is not just up to it.

Survivor benefits are not a handout. They offset the lost income and earning potential of both the deceased service member and spouse who put their life and career on hold to support their loved one's service. Service members are recruited by the DoD to serve with this promise lingering in the air.

To cut off this repayment at the arbitrary age of 55 is not only archaic, it is a failure to honor the promise made to service members that, if they die, the nation they fought and died for will take care of their families.

"It's very hard for me to somehow reconcile voting [to send foreign aid to Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel] and then somehow not [have] the resources to take care of families that have made the ultimate sacrifice," said Phillips. "I'm not someone who takes very kindly to this notion that we just don't have the money. Because we do. It's about how we choose to share it."

It is easy to forget about the promise our country has made to Gold Star families if you aren't one. This is why we need to tell Marcie Robertson's story and Theresa Jones' and Ashlynne Haycock-Lohmann and Dean Phillips'. They are survivors who are doing the work. It's time we honored our promise.

"He paid for it with his life. I believe he was willing to go into combat and risk his life because he knew that we would be taken care of," said Robertson. "I don't think he would have done those things if he thought that we would be left high and dry."

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