After her husband was killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan in 2012, Heather Gray never imagined that the biggest obstacle to falling in love again would be financial penalties from the government.
But that extra level of stress and heartache are what faces the 37-year-old war widow as she looks at getting remarried this year.
"I am a Christian, and I believe very strongly in the sanctity of marriage," Gray said. "But you're being forced to give up the [widow] benefits you have if you do."
She has three children from her first marriage, and her husband-to-be is a widower with three more. Both want them to grow up in a traditional family with two parents, but that's a decision that will cost them thousands of dollars a month.
"There's a generation of [military] kids that will grow up in non-traditional families because their parents were forced to make these decisions based on economic realities," she said.
Gray was among a small group of widows in Washington, D.C., this past week whose hopes for help were dashed by Congress, after a House Veterans’ Affairs Committee panel cast aside a proposal to end financial penalties for military widows and widowers who remarry.
"We've been working on this for a while, but I don't really think we're getting anywhere," said Elizabeth Davis, a military widow since her husband was killed by a drunk driver 18 months ago. "I've got all these kind words from lawmakers, but most really don't seem willing to make the effort to fix anything."
At issue is a host of payouts and benefits for surviving spouses, and a complex bureaucracy of rules covering them. In short, if a widow or widower of service members killed on active duty remarries before age 55, they lose all survivor benefits, which can total thousands of dollars a month.
Lawmakers' The latest lawmaker attempt to change that came Wednesday from Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., who introduced an amendment to related legislation dealing with survivor benefits. Committee Republicans rebuffed the measure, citing the potential $1 billion-plus cost of the change over the next decade.
"They use the excuse that it's too expensive, but they don't mind spending money on all kinds of other programs," Titus said after the vote.
"Maybe it's just the old tradition that you're supposed to be a widow your whole life and grieve for the lost person, as opposed to starting over. But these are young women with young children. They have their whole lives ahead of them. But we artificially bind them to widowhood, and that makes no sense."
Davis and other widows said they have no intention of remarrying, even if they fall in love again. The financial burden is too great, especially when health care and veterans education benefits for their children are considered is factored in.
The Gray family, shown just a few months before Maj. David Gray was killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Gray family
But Gray said her religious convictions about marriage outweigh those financial challenges, although in her case that’s lessened somewhat because her new fiance serves in the military as well. She’ll be able to stay on military health care, something that isn’t an option for other widows who remarry.
More disheartening to the advocates than the latest legislative defeat was the reasoning. At the same hearing, Republicans approved several other program expansions without clear financial offsets. The rejection of Titus' plan seemed arbitrary to them.
"I don't think they're heartless people," Gray said of the panel. "I think they feel our loss. But the gravity of the work that it would take to fix this seems too much for them.
"But just show us that you are trying."
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.