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HEIDELBERG, Germany — Representatives from Hanau and Giessen mentioned it first. They thought the Army should help the widows.

By the end of the Army Family Action Plan conference, all the soldiers, civilians and retirees from across U.S. Army Europe and gathered in Heidelberg agreed. The No. 1 item they wanted sent to the Department of the Army was to make the hundreds of young widows and widowers created by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars eligible for spousal hiring preference in government jobs, even though they are no longer spouses.

And Gen. David McKiernan, who decides what issues to forward up the chain, was in their corner.

“I agree wholeheartedly … the world has changed for widows and widowers,” said McKiernan, the USAREUR commander. “I think it’s high time, we’ve got to change the policies.”

McKiernan said the issue would be worked through the Department of Defense, and after loud applause at his response, said, “Talk’s cheap, so hold your applause (until something happens.)”

The conference ended Friday with two other issues given top priority: making soldiers more knowledgeable about all their possible benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs and changing laws so that all soldiers overseas — not just those from the six states that exempt them — don’t have to pay state income tax.

The first one was doable on a local level through Web sites and possible yearly briefings, McKiernan said.

The second was not. “I’ll certainly forward that one,” he said. “Don’t hold your breath.”

The conference, held annually, is designed to let people bring forward issues and problems they would like to see addressed with the backing of a four-star general.

This year’s USAREUR conference started with more than 50 issues. Ansbach, for instance, noted “limited American restaurants for smaller communities” and the state income tax issue, while Baumholder said it had a problem with school-lunch portion size — too small — and healthfulness.

Darmstadt wanted expedited passports, among other things, and Hohenfels wanted more dental care.

Other issues included: shipping automobiles from the United States — representatives said sometimes people have to drive hundreds of miles to drop the car at a designated debarkation point; the fact that families including members with special medical needs are sometimes stationed at places without services; a desire for a defensive driving course; and the difficulties of overseas dental care and getting medical care pre- or post-deployment.

Spc. Carlos Serra, 23, who works in the tax office in Hanau and was perhaps the youngest of some 56 people at the conference, said he felt enlightened about the complicated processes for addressing issues.

He also said he helped represent the concerns of younger, lower-enlisted soldiers at the conference, especially when it comes to overseas soldiers having to pay state income tax, often more than $1,000 a year.

“I see it every day,” he said of the tax burden.

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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