Kimberly Hazelgrove is finding sympathy from Capitol Hill on the plight of military widows and widowers — but not much action.
Her husband, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brian Hazelgrove, a U.S. Army helicopter pilot, was killed in a crash 13 years ago outside Mosul, Iraq.
Their son Brandon was just three at the time and their daughter Katelyn was only six months old.
On April 5, which is Gold Star Spouses Day, Brandon, now a 10th-grader at Amherst Steele High School, and Katelyn, an eighth-grader at Amherst Junior High, journeyed with Kimberly to the White House in Washington, D.C.
Together, they made a case on behalf of the Gold Star Wives of America, pleading for relief for the families of those who gave their lives in service to the United States.
See, the Hazelgrove family, like many others, is covered by the Survivor Benefit Plan, an annuity delivered through the U.S. Department of Defense.
That benefit, though, can’t be received at the same time that the bereaved families of service members get Dependency and Indemnity Compensation from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The so-called “widow’s tax” makes the families like the Hazelgroves the only federal annuity recipients whose benefits are offset. It costs such families $15,000 per year.
Kimberly argues the offset just isn’t fair, and hearkens back to an era when veterans were denied the right to collection military disability and Social Security payments at the same time. In recent years, those kinds of prohibitions have been eliminated, except for military widows and widowers.
“While we’re 64,000 strong, we’re also kind of a silenced cohort because we’ve been through a traumatic experience. Most people are afraid that if they make waves they’re going to have even more money taken away,” she said.
In Washington, Brandon and Katelyn sat in on meetings with Congressional staffers on the issue, listening while their mother worked to educate aides.
They met for about 10 minutes with President Donald Trump for a photo (each of the kids received a presidential coin to remember the day), then spent roughly an hour with Vice President Mike Pence.
The family has a history with Pence. Brian grew up in Indiana, and it was then-Rep. Pence of Indiana who announced his death on the floor of the House in 2004. Kimberly called the vice president and his wife, Second Lady Karen Pence, “very warm, sincere, hard workers for families.”
After her time in the Army, Kimberly lived in the capital serving on veterans issues committees. This wasn’t her first time in the White House — she met President George W. Bush during his tenure, and admits she broke down crying because she regretted being there without her children.
This time, she wasn’t going to make the same mistake, she said.
Officials on both sides of the aisle have been receptive to her message about the survivor annuity offset, saying it’s wrong and needs to be changed. Yet nothing is being done about it, Kimberly said.
She praised Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur for working to “find the money trail of what’s going on.”
Meanwhile, the Special Survivor Indemnity Allowance, passed nine years ago by Congress, is set to expire in May 2018. It pays $310 per month to an estimated 70,000 families of those who gave their lives in the call of duty.
For Kimberly Hazelgrove, fighting for benefits is “an abomination.”
“The priority of care should be those who won the battle, then the widows and orphaned children,” she said.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.