A 16-year fight for justice has ended in victory for an Amherst woman whose husband died serving his country in Iraq.
Kimberly Hazelgrove has been part of an army of lobbyists who stormed Capitol Hill time and again seeking the repeal of the “widow’s tax.”
They demanded payouts for some 67,000 military spouses whose families bought into the Survivor Benefit Plan. It was supposed to ensure the spouse of a deceased military service member would receive up to 55 percent of the partner’s retirement pay — but whose claims were denied.
“These champions, these women had paid every month for the insurance — to have that stripped away for the last couple of decades is criminal,” Hazelgrove said.
In December, the Senate passed the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, which restored an up to $15,000 per year benefit to war widows.
Hazelgrove and other survivors gathered in the Senate gallery, fingers crossed that at last the bill would go through.
“It was monumental for all of us sitting there. We were from all across the country, those of us assembled there for the vote that day to watch them go up one by one to cast their votes,” she said.
President Donald Trump signed the act into law just before Christmas.
This week, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, is celebrating the victory with a reception in Washington, D.C.
Hazelgrove said TAPS and Gold Star Wives of America have been there for her and her children since Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brian Hazelgrove, a U.S. Army helicopter pilot, was killed in a crash in 2004 near Mosul, Iraq.
“It destroyed our lives when my husband died, and we had to rebuild it,” she said.
She is also an Army veteran, but gave up her military career when Brian died.
She’s spent years seeking meetings with congressmen and senators, arguing passionately for the cause.
In April 2015, she traveled to the White House to ask for help on behalf of the Gold Star Wives of America, and in 2017 she and her children met with Trump for about 10 minutes, then spent an hour with Vice President Mike Pence.
She was often greeted with warmth and promises of support, especially from Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Toledo. But inevitably the widow’s tax repeal would be scrapped by the House.
“So every year we would have to start over,” Hazelgrove said, reintroducing the issue and campaigning for it, lining up sponsors and watching and the House would throw it back to committee to die.
Many times she thought about walking away from the fight in disgust, especially when the costs of traveling to Washington stacked up.
“That is not a cheap endeavor for someone who isn’t paid. Many times I thought about stepping away for my own mental health,” Hazelgrove said.
She also struggled to cover the costs of raising two young children. Her daughter was six months old when Brian died and her son was three.
There were many days when the $15,000 survivor benefit would have covered expenses — like the time she begged the VFW for $1,000 to help with her daughter’s braces, or when high school sports fees were due.
Now her kids are 16 and 19, and Hazelgrove is staring down college expenses. But despite the Capitol Hill win, she is still not receiving Survivor Benefit Plan payments.
Benefits will be restored in phases through 2024, starting next year. This month, federal officials are starting talks about how they’ll pay the $5.7 billion owed over the next 10 years.
Hazelgrove said she expects to receive a couple hundred dollars per month in 2021.
She said the long fight has been a lesson in civics. Justice doesn’t come quickly, but Hazelgrove said she the system does work if you make enough phone calls, write enough letters, shake enough hands — and spend enough money.
“I’m glad no spouse is going to have to endure the trauma that we’ve had to endure,” she said.