Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi, left, and Punchbowl Cemetery Director Gene Castagnetti looked on yesterday as Aseneth Mays Blackwell, national president of Gold Star Wives of America, placed flowers at a dedicatory stone.

Military widows fight to
keep benefits after remarrying

By Gregg K. Kakesako

Military widows whose husbands were killed while on active duty say they should be allowed to retain their medical and survivors benefits if they remarry.

"You can't expect the new spouse to totally assume the support of someone at that point in her life," said Aseneth Mays Blackwell, national president of Gold Star Wives of America.

Blackwell, who lost her husband, Army Special Forces Sgt. Frederic Blackwell, in Vietnam in 1969, added: "It's a shame to think that you might find someone who you want to spend the rest of your life with, but you are afraid because you don't know what may happen tomorrow."

Blackwell, 61, said military widows -- women whose husbands died while on active duty or from a service-connected injury -- are the last remaining group in the federal system not to be allowed such a benefit. She said money to fund such a change has been the major obstacle.

She said the U.S. House this year approved legislation that would allow widows who are 65 and older and remarry to retain their benefits.

"We are hoping that the Senate will lower the age to 55," she said.

Her 12,000-member organization, based in Birmingham, Ala., is holding its annual convention in Hawaii this weekend. More than 124 members and guests attended a memorial service yesterday at the National Cemetery of the Pacific.

The VA reports that there are 512,460 military widows collecting survivor's benefits.

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi will address the group tonight at a dinner banquet.

Meanwhile, Principi announced yesterday that construction will begin in October to enlarge Punchbowl's columbarium by 4,160 niches.

"It's on a fast-track program so that we will be able to continue to have internments in the columbarium before we run out of space," he said.

There are currently 5,404 niches for urns in the columbarium, said Punchbowl Director Gene Castagnetti.

"We have seven months left of utilization at the current rate of 36 cremated internments a month," Castagnetti said.

Principi said five national cemeteries are being planned for mainland sites.

He also said he has "declared war" on the backlog of disability and pension claims filed by aging veterans.

A special team was created to deal with claims filed by veterans 70 and older who have been waiting for more than a year for help.

"In the past year, we have decided 36,000 claims," he added.

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