Warnock pitches plan to extend veteran benefits to surviving Gold Star spouses who remarry

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., prepares to speak before a Senate Rules Committee field hearing on voting rights at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Monday, July 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Ben Gray)

David McCracken made it back safely to his home in Tyrone after being deployed to Iraq, but he came back complaining of headaches and coughing.

More than a year after his return, the 30-year-veteran who had been exposed to toxic burn pits while serving in Baghdad was diagnosed with brain cancer. 

At the end of his life and after many years spent moving around the world together, David McCracken left his wife Tammy with a parting wish: He hoped she would find love again and be happy.

But David McCracken did not know about a longstanding rule that cuts off survivor benefits for spouses when they remarry before the age of 55.

Tammy McCracken, who was in her early 40s at the time, learned about the rule during a jarring phone call she received from an Army representative shortly after her husband died 11 years ago this month. Surviving spouses also can’t “hold themselves out to be married” – meaning they risk losing their benefits if the federal government finds out they are all but officially married to someone else.

“I was like believe me, I’m not thinking about getting married. My husband’s not even in the ground yet,” McCracken said. “I just thought that was such a callous thing to say. That’s probably the only reason I remember that one thing out of everything they told me. I just thought, ‘Ah, that’s so brutal to tell a widow that.’”

McCracken had quit her job at a tech company to be a full-time caregiver for her husband, who had lost his short-term memory and struggled with basic tasks like navigating his own home.

She says the phone call she received after his death still bothers her.

“I know he was the one who served, he was the one who fought and earned those benefits. But it’s belittling to think that I was not at his side the whole time supporting him through the moves, through the transitions, picking up jobs every time we moved,” she said.

“It’s just like I don’t matter. That whole partnership, the marriage – it’s like it just didn’t matter.”  

McCracken, who has not remarried, still lives in the house the couple purchased and moved into with their three children in 2007 when David McCracken was assigned to Fort Gillem, the now mostly shuttered Army base located just south of Atlanta.

McCracken says she is friends with another Georgia widow who is planning a joint birthday and wedding for next year.

“She’s getting married on her 55th birthday because of all this mess,” McCracken said.

‘What changed?’

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock introduced a bill this month that would end the policy of cutting off benefits for surviving spouses once they remarry.

The Georgia Democrat teamed up with Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran, who is the ranking member on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. Both are touting their bipartisan track record as they campaign for reelection this fall.

Warnock said he was moved to file the bill after hearing from surviving spouses, who make their own sacrifices when married to someone in the military.

The freshman senator mentioned a Georgia woman who is an attorney and had to retake the bar exam every time her husband received a new assignment and they had to move to another base. She is one of about 1,000 Georgians who would benefit from the proposal. Nearly 100 of these surviving spouses live near Augusta.

“It shouldn’t matter whether someone remarries. These are families that have borne a great deal of sacrifice in order to support the service of their loved one,” Warnock said in a recent interview.

“Their loved one is now gone, and the least we can do is to continue to provide survivor benefits, provide dependency and indemnity compensation, and to ensure that they have the kind of dependents’ education assistance that they’ve earned,” he said. “These are folks who have lost their spouse in the line of duty or as a result of their duty. So, what changed?”

Warnock said he is hoping to see the proposal passed this year, potentially as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.

The measure is the most comprehensive attempt to address what military family advocacy groups argue is a punitive and outdated policy – especially when considering that the average age of a surviving spouse is 25 years old, according to the nonprofit Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. Most of them are women. 

“We’re asking some survivors to wait 30 years to remarry without losing benefits,” said Candace Wheeler, director of policy with TAPS.

The measure would allow spouses to retain access to the survivor benefit plan, which Wheeler described as an annuity for the spouse after the death of a service member. It’s an important benefit for spouses who may not have been in the workforce long enough to build up their own retirement savings.

The bill would also redefine spouse to include same-sex couples, and it applies to other benefits, such as commissary access. It would also allow the spouse to regain access to TRICARE health care benefits if the new marriage ends.

Cost will likely be a point of contention. The proposal is estimated to cost about $2 billion over the course of a decade. Also, proponents of ending the remarriage rule say they also encounter resistance from those who believe the spouse’s new partner should assume responsibility for them.

“We did hear a fair amount of that – this belief that taxpayer dollars should not go towards helping support the new family,” said Ashlynne Haycock-Lohmann, who is also with TAPS. “And not taking into consideration all of the sacrifices – professionally, personally – that surviving spouses already made and that these are their benefits, and if they had chosen not to remarry and just continued to cohabitate or the like, they would have continued to receive them.”

Advocates also argue spouses of first responders, like police officers, do not face the same threat of losing their benefits.