Kathy Barnette learned quickly that it never hurts to ask.
She was forced to ask the Department of Veterans Affairs repeatedly for help as the bills piled up after her husband, Dan, died in 2008.
His terminal conditions, Agent Orange, diabetes and melanoma, are believed to be the result of his 20-year Air Force career, when he served in both the Vietnam War and Operation Desert Storm.
"I didn't even have time to grieve because I knew I was going to lose my home and my vehicle, because all I was going to get was $600 a month," Barnette said.
She said she avoided that fate by being persistent. It's an attitude she said she'll use to fight the Victoria County Tax Appraisal District's decision to deny her a property tax exemption given to 100 percent or totally disabled veterans.
The law - also known as tax code 11.131 or House Bill 3613 - wasn't passed until a year after her husband died, making her ineligible for the benefit, officials said.
Even then, surviving spouses weren't eligible for the benefit until District 7 Texas Senator Dan Patrick pushed Senate Bill 516, which became effective Jan. 1.
The surviving spouses have to have been widowed on or after 2009 to qualify, Attorney General Greg Abbott ruled in April.
"I am pleased that the Attorney General's opinion will ensure that surviving spouses who lost a loved one between 2009 and 2012 will also be covered under my legislation," Patrick wrote in a news release. "To treat surviving spouses from 2009 any differently from surviving spouses in 2012 would have been unfair and contradicted the intent of my legislation."
Barnette meets the other requirements. She never remarried, and she's lived in the same Victoria home for the past 20 years.
"It would've knocked about $200 or $300 off my mortgage payment," she said, adding she intends to fill out the county appraisal district's form just in case.
She's also working with the VA in amending her husband's death certificate to bring up his disability rating from 70 to 100 percent.
"I just feel like these guys and gals go and fight for our country and they come up with these illnesses and nothing is done to help, especially families that are left behind. It's just wrong," Barnette said.
Victoria County Veterans Services Officer Gloria Picon-McDade said she's hearing more and more from Vietnam veterans' widows who are benefits savvy, but the ones the worst off financially appear to be the wives of World War II veterans, the latter of whom the agency reported were dying at a rate of about 600 each month.
She said dialing the VA hotline often can be misleading because the person answering may not be familiar with Texas laws nor just how proactive the laws are compared to other states.
"I tell them, 'You've got to talk to your congressman and state representatives. They make the laws. We don't. The VA accepts what they change,'" Picon-McDade said. "It's not fair, but could you believe if they had given it to all the widows from all the past years? They have to have a cut off otherwise our county would be broke."
She said it usually takes more than a year for the VA to respond to a benefits inquiry. She can appeal their decisions, but not all things are negotiable.
"Everybody's case could be different," Picon-McDade said.
Texas Sen. Glenn Hegar, who represents District 18, supported Patrick's legislation, but said via email, "Undoubtedly, local property taxes fund important functions for local communities, including our public schools. It is always important that we honor the families who sacrificed while their loved ones served our country protecting the freedoms we enjoy in our state and nation."
Walquiria Sanchez, of Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, which sometimes provides free legal services to veterans and their families depending on their income, said the surviving spouses time restriction may have been put in place to see how much it would cost the state.
"Little by little, they roll these things out," she said, pointing to other benefits, such as the most recent toll road fee exemptions veterans receive in the Austin and Lubbock-areas. "Texas is a very generous state."
Distributed by MCT Information Services