'My life has been on pause': Surviving spouses of service members fight to retain benefits after they remarry
Stars and Stripes August 13, 2023
As many as 100 spouses of deceased service members are expected to descend on Capitol Hill in late September to lobby for a bill that would eliminate financial penalties imposed for decades on husbands and wives who want to remarry.
Tonya Syers would be there but she’s getting remarried after a nearly three-year engagement. She turns 55 on Sept. 15 and is finally free to wed without losing the benefits her first husband, a 20-year Army veteran, had earned before passing away.
“I feel like my life has been on pause,” Syers said. “If it was up to us, we probably would’ve been married within a year of meeting.”
Congress decided in the 1960s that widows and widowers would lose compensation, health care, educational opportunities, commissary access and other benefits if they remarry before age 55. Now surviving spouses and advocates are asking lawmakers to make the decision to undo those rules.
“This is one of those archaic injustices that the survivor community faces,” said Ashlynne Haycock-Lohmann, deputy director of government and legislative affairs for the nonprofit organization Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS. “The age 55 is arbitrary. … There’s no science behind that age.”
The group is organizing the September lobbying effort and led the drafting of a bill introduced this spring that would allow spouses of fallen service members and veterans to collect benefits no matter the age at which they remarry. The measure, called the Love Lives On Act, is the first “comprehensive” legislative attempt to address nearly all benefits affected by the age requirement at once, Haycock-Lohmann said.
The bill’s price tag, estimated at $2.7 billion for 10 years, means its path in Congress will be difficult. Only one part of the legislation, a no-cost provision that ensures spousal access to commissaries and military bases, made it into the Senate and House drafts of the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act.
A spokesperson for Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, the top Republican on the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said the senator will continue to press for additional benefits as lawmakers negotiate the final version of the annual defense policy bill. Moran introduced the Love Lives On Act alongside Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga. A companion bill is also in the House.
At least 30,000 surviving spouses would benefit from the proposed legislation, Haycock-Lohmann said. While most spouses receiving compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs are in their 70s and 80s, the average age of a spouse at the time of their partner’s death is now 25 to 35, she said.
Kelli Campbell-Goodnow was 36 when her husband, Maj. Shawn Campbell, died in a helicopter training exercise off the coast of Hawaii in 2016. She had been a homemaker for the entirety of Campbell’s 15-year career in the Marines and was left to raise four young children alone.
Four years later, she remarried, and was forced to give up her benefits and physically hand over the identification card that afforded her privileges to which she had grown accustomed.
“It was really kind of a degrading, sad thing to have to go through,” Campbell-Goodnow said. “They almost make you feel like you did something wrong.”
Campbell-Goodnow said she worried about the financial implications of getting remarried but never wavered in her decision, believing her faith would take care of her. But now, as a business school student with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, she wishes she could take advantage of the Fry Scholarship for surviving spouses.
“I’m doing OK, but it hurts that I can’t access scholarships and things for school and it hurts that I’m kind of nonexistent now,” Campbell-Goodnow said. “I was a stay-at-home mom, I homeschooled our kids. Our lifestyle was very much wrapped up in his job and our duty station and our [military] community.”
Military spouses, most of them women, struggle far more than their civilian counterparts to build careers due to frequent moves, unavailable child care and other factors unique to the military lifestyle. Education and other survivor benefits become a critical lifeline for these spouses when service members die, Haycock-Lohmann said.
“Surviving spouses widowed at 30 most likely have to retrain, go back to school and then you’re looking at starting your first real career at 40,” she said. “That’s almost 20 years of lost income that they’ll never be able to make back. These aren’t just the service member’s benefits. These survivor benefits help make up for their own lost earning potential.”
The notion that a widow or widower will no longer need those benefits if they remarry before 55 is misguided, Haycock-Lohmann said, because it implies survivors become the responsibility of their new spouses.
“The laws are very archaic, very 1950s,” she said. “They treat surviving spouses as if they are property.”
Surviving spouses can lose roughly $40,000 in benefits from the VA and Defense Department per year if they remarry, she said. Only about 5% of widows and widowers younger than 55 get remarried because of the financial penalties, according to TAPS.
Syers, the widow of an Army veteran, said she receives about $2,000 in monthly benefits, half of the retirement funds that her husband, Chief Warrant Officer Lowell Syers, would have collected if he lived to 60. Lowell Syers died in 2019 at age 51 from glioblastoma, a brain cancer that also killed combat veterans John McCain, a former senator, and Beau Biden, President Joe Biden’s son.
Syers followed her husband for 10 military moves, including postings to Germany and South Korea, and raised two children. Her ability to get a job suffered as a result.
She said she considers herself fortunate for losing her husband at a comparatively older age. When she met her fiancé in 2020, Syers told him they would need to wait several years to marry — a length of time that was “tough” but doable.
“My younger widow sisters, they have to wait decades,” she said. "Nobody should have to wait like this to get married.”
Syers has shared her story in letters to members of Congress in hopes of gaining support for the Love Lives On Act. Haycock-Lohmann said the veteran and military spouse community feels it is the right time to make progress on the issue of spousal benefits after years of focus on legislation such as the PACT Act, a mammoth veteran health care bill that was signed into law last year.
“This bill represents how we treat families,” said Campbell-Goodnow. “It's such a punch in the gut to have to go through loss again, to have to surrender the benefits your husband worked for because you're doing something you know he would’ve wanted: moving on and moving forward with your family.”