What You Might Not Know About Your Local VFW : Help for Surviving Spouses of Our Armed Forces

By Maya W. Tyler

VFW HQ, Washington DC

As a widow coach, I naturally have clients that are military widows. I hear the stories and worries of countless surviving spouses, each wondering what, if anything, is the return on their family’s very costly sacrifice. They worry about the children they have to now raise alone, the employment hurdles and career pauses that deployment causes, how they’ve had to tighten their belts to survive economically, and above all the overall physical and emotional health challenges many widows have to endure alone. So, what does the military have to offer them in return?
Well, that all depends, on a LOT.

“When you think about [what we go through as widows emotionally] it makes dealing with the benefits that much harder. It’s important for widows to understand where they stand with VA, what is available to them and what part DOD (Department of Defense) plays in their benefits“.

I am a widow, but my husband was not military. So, in order to get answers to questions regarding support for surviving military families,  I sought out the help of Gabby Kubinyi, head of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Washington DC Roots Advocacy Program. Gabby is a Veteran’s Administration (VA) accredited service officer and former customer support claims consultant. Because she is also a gold star widow, herself – meaning her husband passed away during active duty –  Gabby knows more than a thing or two about the complexities of the VA office; from both sides of the fence.

“The biggest issue,” she begins, “is that you just don't know what you don't know.”

Gabby Kubinyi, head of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Washington DC Roots Advocacy Program

 People have a hard time dealing with the VA on their own. Not because they don't want to help, but because not only is there a LOT of paperwork, claim information and insurance history and jargon to sift through- widows are ALREADY going through Hell. It's almost unfathomable the time, patience and strength it takes to fight for benefits you’re not even 100% sure you’re going to receive, while grieving and still caring for a family in the aftermath.  “When you think about [what we go through as widows emotionally] it makes dealing with the benefits that much harder. It’s important for widows to understand where they stand with VA, what is available to them and what part DOD (Department of Defense) plays in their benefits,” she says. 

What Is The VFW?

So what does the VFW actually do? Gabby takes me to the lobby, and proudly points up.

The sign above the entrance doors boldly states the overall mission of the organization: “Honor the dead by helping the living”.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States is a nonprofit veterans service organization comprised of eligible veterans and military service members from the active, guard and reserve forces. Membership stands at more than 1.6 million members of the VFW and its Auxiliary.  

 Most military families are aware that the Veteran’s Affairs office provides some help. But most don’t know how to access this help.  You could just show up at a VA regional office, or medical center and ask questions, but as life changing situations arise, time is not always available.  

  “What I think is most important to understand; […]  is knowing the BEST most DIRECT route to that help… and the first step is knowing who can advocate best for you.”

  Gabby says, “What I think is most important to understand; when [widows] have an issue or claim or question, is knowing the BEST most DIRECT route to that help… and the first step is knowing who can advocate best for you.” The question is, she explains, is whether that someone is within the VA organization (who may present you with a bit of red tape and chain of command obstacles ) or someone on the outside, who can advocate for you,  push a little harder, who may have more leverage and access and know how to circumvent the barriers to get you the support you need? Knowing and having access to the documented the details of how and when someone who served passes away makes a huge difference. 

 Enter: the VFW nationally accredited service officers. 

 “There are a lot of different layers, and it’s very complicated, but that’s what's great about VFW” Kubiyni explains. “We are not just here for veterans.” 

 The VFW aids with claims, support, advocacy, referrals and a whole lot more.  You do not need to be a member, or even be member eligible to receive answers to your questions … and here’s a little known fact: there are VFW Service officers stationed inside the VA facilities.  

Another not so well known fact is that even though the VFW are here to support veterans and qualified members have served on foreign soil… VFW still helps the ENTIRE military community, including veterans usually handled by American Legion, because they served on American soil only. So you actually don't have to be a qualifying VFW member to get help with claims, support or consultation!

What You Think You Know: Veteran Benefit Claims

“So far in 2019 the VFW is very proud to report having helped veterans, widows, and surviving families recover over $9 billion in benefits,” Gabby says smiling. “We really do great work.” 

So what kinds of claims does VFW help with? 

The two main claims a veteran family can receive compensation for are the Survivors Benefit Plan (SBP) and the Dependent and Indemnity Compensation Plan (DIC). Remember these two. 

Survivors Benefit Plan (SBP) 

For someone who has passed:

  • active duty 
  • retiree (veterans who served 20 + years)
  • Medically retired 

Families who enroll in the program pay a percentage of their retirement pay in exchange for a guaranteed income stream to survivors, in the event of the death of a military active member or retiree. The option for this plan is extended upon retirement and a monthly premium is paid into it.

Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC):

This is a tax free monetary benefit paid to eligible survivors of military Service members who died in the line of duty or eligible survivors of veterans whose death resulted from a service-related injury or disease, or was rated 100% Permanently and Totally Disabled by VA for more than 10 years.

If your loved one passed in the line of duty, compensation usually gets sorted out pretty quickly.  But if your loved one passes after service but their death is connected to their service – claims of this nature need proof. Specific proof. The process is difficult and complicated. 

Having a VA accredited Service Officer to help is critical in order to: 

  • Translate the Correspondence Letters so that you fully understand your situation, and what your application is missing or reasons you’re being denied claims
  • Work with the spouse to collect information to ensure claim goes through
  • Work with special cases such as Agent Orange (decades ago) deaths are eligible for DIC – but a VA SO is important because they have access to the details of these older cases and can explain what needs to be done to prove eligibility, and help a spouse successfully apply and avoid denial/ repeated re-applications.

Common Problems with SBP/DIC payouts:

  • Service member may not elect the SBP option (Because it’s not in people’s plans to die! Many younger people opt out of this benefit thinking they won't need it!
  • Issues with Payment of premiums 
  • SBP payout lasts as long as the survivor is alive – BUT the most the SBP will pay survivors is 55% of retirement pay, which is what survivors receive in exchange for 6.5% of monthly retirement benefits. Note also that SBP is considered “paid in full” after 30 years or 360 payments.
  • If the spouse dies first, no benefits from the SBP will ever be paid. No refunds.
  • If a couple gets divorced, the ex-spouse of a retiree can still be awarded his or her SBP
  • It can cost hundreds of dollars a month, and regardless of this strain on families, you don't necessarily get back what you put in. The payout is offset by the DIC payment, dollar for dollar, to avoid being “paid for the same claim twice”, or “double dipping”. (What!?) Google the hashtag #axthewidowtax. Luckily, the VFW is working on making this right, as we speak! There is also SSIA, the special survivor indemnity allowance, which is a $318 per month payment the congress made to offset the offset. 

Dizzying, right?! That’s why VFW is here to help!  Learn more about the SBP HERE.

Another little known VFW fact : There is NO statute of limitations on DIC. No one is turned away, no matter how old the case may be. If you are a survivor and not receiving DIC, VFW can assist. If you are even the grandchild of a veteran service member, you can still get help understanding any possible claim situations.

There are millions of veterans who never file claims or have served a tour or more and are honorably discharged…who get nothing when they die other than being eligible for a national cemetery burial. As far as the VA is concerned, the death must be medically connected to a condition recognized as service connected. And even then, if the death is deemed service connected, but you are not considered 100% permanently and totally disabled by the VA office, and you die from anything other than your service connected medical issue … your spouse gets nothing. 

Most people think that because a person served in the military, things like burial, funeral costs, and headstones will be free, or some sort of stipend will be automatically sent to them. Truth is, eligibility for interment (burial) costs must be met, and there are multiple expenses a funeral includes that are not necessarily covered.  This leaves many military spouses and families paying several thousands of dollars they didn't expect to pay, and left wondering how they ended up with ‘crushing debt, a folded flag, and a broken heart’. 

Is that all they get for their sacrifices?

No! There IS more support. Much more. That’s why VFW accredited service officers are here. This is where the good that they do comes in.  They can help build legitimate cases advocating for a death that might have been service connected and perhaps overlooked. If a way can be found for benefits to be made available – this is their expertise. Service Officers also have extensive knowledge of other allowances, financial grants, and community and employment support programs that really can help – that many people have no idea even exist. 

What You Probably Don't Know:

What other kinds of support does VFW provide?

While helping secure families with monetary compensation is money is pretty awesome, that's actually not all the VFW does.  For families that were otherwise dismissed as ineligible or may have been overlooked and unclaimed without VFW Service Officer assistance… the VFW has still found ways to be a huge asset to military families. 

“People who have dealt with any kind of trauma need to connect with other people who have been through the same trauma.” Gabby says solemnly. “We have all been through the same pain, and through giving back at our Auxiliary Chapters, we strive to turn times of hurt into times of healing.”

The VFW has Auxiliary Chapters worldwide that support veteran families with places that they can go for help such as: 

  • Group/Community Healing and Emotional support 
  • Activities for National Observance Days (Memorial Day, poppies) 
  • Supporting grandchildren of VFW veterans 
  • Staying connected, so that families don't feel isolated

VFW also works with and refers surviving families to stellar programs such as:

T.A.P.S. Tragedy Assistance Program For Survivors https://www.taps.org

  • Deal mostly with active duty deaths
  • Grief/emotional work, widow retreats
  • Mentorship program matches widows with someone with like circumstances 
  • Good Grief Camps for kids, each child is matched with a military mentors for lifetimes!
  • Widow employment counseling

Why You've Never heard of them:

  • The Veteran’s office will  reach out – but with so many spam callers nowadays, many don't realize that's what the call is and don't answer the unrecognized numbers.
  • TAPS will reach out to surviving family members of active duty deaths but they are not able to reach out to families of veteran deaths.
  • TAPS is only celebrating 25 years – they are relatively young, and still growing

American Widow Project – by Taryn Davis http://americanwidowproject.org/

  • Retreats, intimate setting
  • Programs and Assistance in rebuilding lives
  • Finding your strength and power as a widow
  • Preventing isolation

Why You've Never heard of them:

  • AWP is only 10 years old, and still growing
  • AWP has mostly online presence, so there’s a generational gap
  • The American Widow Project is a 501(c)3 tax exempt non-profit that survives off the kindness of others. Meaning, their outreach programs are somewhat limited to donations, fundraisers, and local sponsors.

Other Links and Programs

Gold Star Family Program https://www.americasgoldstarfamilies.org/

The American Legion ‎ www.members.legion.org/‎ ( American Soil [Non-Foreign War] Veterans)

What Matters Is What THEY Know

…And how YOU can benefit.

VFW is and does much more than most people think.  They literally exist to use their knowledge, connections and expertise to  “Ensure that veterans are respected for their service, always receive their earned entitlements, and are recognized for the sacrifices they and their loved ones have made on behalf of this great country.”

The VFW posts and auxiliary buildings are a place where any military family can go, to find resources, community, support, benefit help and programs, retreats and connections all over the world. This includes parents, siblings, children, and grandchildren of veterans too, not just spouses!

“We are a HUB for all military families.”  Kubinyi stresses. “We want you to know, there's no need to be isolated and on your own, we want you to be able to be connected, healing, gaining, and giving back – together. In the midst of our losses, we are still a family.”

Visit https://www.vfw.org/assistance/va-claims-separation-benefits  for your state service officer.

If the service officer is too far, contact the Washington DC office, or Gabby Kubinyi  to connect with someone who is closest to you. 

Questions? Reach Gabby Kubinyi at :

Gkubinyi@vfw.org

VFW

Washington DC Office

200 Maryland Ave NE 20002

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