Collateral casualties

My husband was certain that he was going to die in Iraq.

Sgt. 1st Class David J. Salie had been an American soldier for almost 17 years. He'd deployed many times, and he'd been to war before. He'd parachuted into Panama with the 82nd Airborne Division, served in the Gulf War and gone to Haiti with the 25th Infantry Division. But he'd never been so certain that he was going to die that he prepared for death.

David told me that he wouldn't be coming back. I didn't believe him. I felt that he was just under so much stress thinking of our children and me, and about the 40 soldiers in his platoon who were his responsibility.

In the month before he left for Iraq with B Company, 2nd of the 69th Armor, 3rd Infantry Division, David went over his will with a fine-toothed comb, and he checked out his Survivor's Group Life Insurance, which provides protection for military people. David even gave away some of his personal belongings. He also checked on the death benefits that a soldier's family receives. My husband came home and proudly announced that if he died in Iraq, his family would be taken care of. I tried to tell him that he shouldn't worry about things like that. He said that every soldier going to war worries about his family and wants to make sure that if he's killed, his family will be taken care of just as they would be if he were still alive.

We were "all squared away," David told me.

I wish I could say that he was wrong about dying and right about the rest of it. Instead, he was correct in his premonition about his own death, but wrong that we were "squared away."

On the evening of Feb. 14, 2005, a little after 9 p.m., I heard a knock on the front door of our house at Fort Benning. I got up from the couch in the living room, where I'd been resting with a sick child, and I saw two soldiers in dress green uniforms standing on the front porch.

As my 11-year-old daughter watched, they informed me that David had been killed that day by a roadside bomb in Baqouba, Iraq. I can't tell you what they said after I heard the words, ". . . Regrets to inform you" because I was crying and screaming too loudly to hear much.

The next week was filled with contacting family members, trying to hold myself together for my three children, making funeral arrangements and dealing with all the red tape that a military death forces upon you.

Had it not been for my Casualty Assistance Officer and the Rear Detachment Command of my husband's brigade, I'm not sure I would have made it through those first weeks. I was one of a lucky few who had wonderful help after my husband's death. Many other Army wives are less fortunate.

After making it through my husband's funeral, I was greeted with mountains of paperwork. I was escorted from office to office by my casualty officer as my military identification card was changed and reissued; as I signed up for the Veterans Administration's Dependency and Indemnity Compensation and the military's Survivor's Benefit Plan.

I reviewed the paperwork after all of these appointments, and I was shocked to discover that David had been wrong: We weren't going to be cared for as if he were still alive.

My husband didn't know that dependents' compensation offsets the Survivor's Benefit Plan. If he'd known that, it would have made him very angry.

DIC is a payment made to widows, their children and some parents who've lost a husband, father or son. Widows are entitled to the benefit for the remainder of their lives, unless they remarry. DIC comes from the Department of Veterans Affairs. SBP pays a deceased soldier's income, and it comes from the Department of Defense.

The offset, a dollar-for-dollar deduction, is supposedly intended to prevent double dipping from two similar benefit plans. But the Survivors Benefit Plan and Dependents Indemnity Compensation are provided for different reasons, and the offset leaves many military families with no survivors' benefits at all. Others receive only the pittance that's left over after the offset is deducted.

One widow in West Virginia receives a service member's annuity of $4 a month. A disabled widow in Tennessee receives no Survivors' Benefits and still has to pay for Medicare and other medical expenses.

A widow in California had to assign her lifetime SBP benefit to her three children because they can receive that money without the offset and she can clothe and feed them. After they're grown, she'll receive nothing from SBP.

Surviving spouses with children have the greatest needs. Many were unable to build careers and earn retirement credits of their own because of the constant moves and the other demands of their spouses' military jobs. Child care costs are high. Their families were totally dependent on their service members' income.

A surviving spouse who's disabled has even greater needs. A service member's life insurance may be used up buying a home or financing college for his or her children.

As we try to rebuild our shattered lives, the offset deals us a second blow. Grief and loss are hard enough to handle, but now we have more important worries, such as providing homes, food, clothing and schooling for our families.

This is not a partisan political issue. This is not a matter of whether you're for or against the war in Iraq. This is about those who died serving our country, standing between our enemies and us and believing that their families would be cared for if they gave their lives.

It's a shame that that isn't true.

Two bills are pending in Congress — S. 935 in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and H.R. 1927 in the House of Representatives, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas — that would eliminate the offset and help the families of our fallen. Please contact your senators and representatives and urge them to vote for these bills.