Common fight unites widows

WASHINGTON – Marie Jordan Speer and Jessica Byrd each sent a husband to war. Each became a widow in her early 20s.

Speer had a 1-year-old son. Byrd was pregnant with her son. Suddenly on their own, both women were again dependent on their families.

The biggest difference between their plights is 60 years – Speer’s husband died in World War II, Byrd’s in the Iraq war.

Because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the graying membership of the Gold Star Wives, which Speer founded in 1945, is relevant all over again, advocating on behalf of an estimated 1,600 new widows and widowers.

“It was somebody to lean on, because my family could only take so much,” said Byrd, 25, who got involved the Gold Star Wives through its Internet chat room after her husband, Marine Lance Cpl. John Byrd, died in 2004.

Most of the chatting, Byrd said, took place during “the famous widow hours” – the middle of the night, when she couldn’t sleep. “I could go on it and cry without waking my family up, and I’d have other women crying with me and telling me they’d been through it and everything was going to be OK,” she said.

“There’s a lot in common because you have to get on your own feet,” said Speer, 86, who attended a Capitol Hill reception last week with about 50 widows of all ages and several members of Congress. “What we’re trying to encourage is for the younger women to take more initiative and take it over because somebody told me that you don’t live forever.”

Gold Star’s two main lobbyists, Edith Smith, 66, and Rose Lee, 78, are volunteers who have been teaching a small group of Iraq war widows about the legislative process and testifying at congressional hearings.

Lee, whose husband, Army Col. C.M. Lee, died on active duty in Taiwan in 1972 after fighting in Korea and Vietnam, said the lawmakers treat them kindly, but getting them to ante up more financial support for war widows is not always easy to do. Survivors today seem to receive better benefits, Lee said, but with the changing cost of living, it’s hard to tell if they are better off than those from previous eras.

Kimberly Hazelgrove, 33, whose husband, Army CW2 Brian Hazelgrove, died in Iraq three years ago, said she’s already learned one thing. “Be very patient, but to also be pro-active in getting what you deserve,” she said.

What they find is that when it comes to the struggles of the survivors of dead soldiers, little has changed since 1945. There’s the loneliness factor, and while they do get benefits, it’s often not enough to cover the loss of one family member’s paycheck.

After Byrd’s husband died, she had to leave Hawaii, where he was stationed, and go back home to Philadelphia. Only recently, she got her own place with their 2-year-old son, Elijah. She is not working, she said, because childcare is too expensive to make it worthwhile.

Marion Rudin Frank, a psychologist who leads Gold Star’s Philadelphia chapter, said that after her husband’s plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 1965, no one explained to her that she was eligible to receive educational benefits. At 23, she scraped by as a single parent and paid for graduate school herself.

“This is not a group that wants new members, but of course we have new members that we really have to fight for,” said Frank, whose husband was Air Force 2nd Lt. Ira Husik. “We don’t want them to go through some of the things we didn’t have to go through.”

Speer said she started the Gold Star Wives after contacting other widows she read of in a newspaper. One week later, President Roosevelt died.

Soon after, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt accepted their invitation to join. She later had the ladies over to her Hyde Park home for blueberries topped with whipped cream. Other chapters starting popping up once Mrs. Roosevelt wrote about the group in her “My Day” newspaper column.

During World War II, Speer said, there was no death gratuity like the $100,000 given to Iraq widows today. World War II widows received a pension of $50 per month, with an additional $15 for the first child and $10 for each additional child. They also received $10,000 in insurance, doled out to young widows over 20 years – which amounted to $55 per month, she said.

“You had to go home to Mama and Papa every once in a while to eat,” said Speer, whose husband, Army Pvt. Edward Jordan, died in 1944.

Today, the Gold Star Wives have more than 10,000 members. Men whose wives died while serving on active duty or as the result of a service-connected disability are also eligible to join.

The Gold Star members successfully pushed for the passage of a law that says spouses who remarry after age 57 can keep the Veterans Affairs Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, a monthly benefit paid to eligible survivors of certain deceased veterans. They also successfully advocated to extend the time for widows to use their education benefit from 10 years to 20 years.

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