Widow fights to collect husband's full pension benefits

When Janet Snyder's husband passed away, she didn't expect that her pension benefits would allow her to live a life of luxury or buy a mansion in Beverly Hills. But she did expect that she would be eligible for full government entitlements.

Her husband, Thomas Snyder, retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel. He joined the service in 1958 and was a procurement officer, traveling all over the world wherever the U.S. sent him. He even did a tour in Vietnam during the war, and although Janet was not allowed to accompany him there, she traveled with him to just about every other duty station to which he was assigned.

When retirement came in 1978, the couple purchased a motor home and continued to travel -- all over the United States. But sensing that they needed a more permanent place to come back to from time to time, they ended up in a condo in Las Vegas at the urging of their son, who lives here.

Her husband's medical problems began several years ago, when he was bothered by what she says was a sore on his tongue. Several medical doctors and dentists were unable to diagnose the cause until it was suggested he get a biopsy. The results showed it was cancer. In ensuing years, he would be additionally diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, bladder cancer, prostate cancer and diabetes. The latter two illnesses were attributed to his exposure to Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam, and he was given a disability rating by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). In October 2010, after 52 years of marriage, he passed away.

"I figured I would be eligible for Dependent Indemnity Compensation," Janet said. And she was, but what she says neither the VA nor any other government agency told her at the time was that the amount from DIC is automatically deducted ("offset") from another benefit she has -- the Survivor Benefit Plan. "This is unfair," she says, "because the Survivor plan is like an insurance policy for which my husband and others like him paid monthly premiums."

She is quick to point out that when a non-veteran dies and has an insurance policy, the insurance company will not penalize the survivor/beneficiary if he or she has income from other sources. "Yet we military widows are penalized," she laments.

Snyder is the president of the local chapter of the Gold Star Wives, women whose husbands were killed during combat or from an illness contracted during combat operations, such as Agent Orange in the Vietnam War. It was a member of the Gold Star Wives who first advised Snyder of the offset.

"Some people do know about it and said I was living in the dark by not knowing," she said. But she explained that her life was in turmoil at the time.

"My husband became so ill, all our lives were spent going to doctors and going to hospitals, four and five days a week." Her husband received treatment at both VA and civilian medical centers. "We were very pleased with the treatment in Las Vegas, both government and civilian. It was top-notch," she says. "For the Alzheimer's, we were going to the Lou Ruvo Center."

While there is no cure for that condition, she says her husband was given "two types of medications that did help slow the progression. We caught it early. My husband was falling, and people who fall a lot could be in early stages of Alzheimer's."

Snyder formed the local Gold Star Wives soon after her husband passed away. "He was in Nathan Adelson home hospice, and they wanted me to go to their grief counseling, but I prefer to be with military widows," she said. "Nathan Adelson was great, and it's not that I'm snobbish, but I felt more comfortable with military widows."

As with other organizations, when members have commonality about select experiences, they tend to form a more solid bond. But although the Gold Star Wives was formed in 1945 nationally, there was no Las Vegas chapter. "I decided that I wanted to start one," Snyder said.

Snyder and many of the 40 members of her chapter say they are in regular contact with all of Nevada's elected officials in Washington. They want the law changed so that widows in their situations can receive 100 percent of what they say they are entitled to. She said she has received congressional support, but passage of new benefits legislation is not forthcoming due to current federal budget constraints.

And although she wouldn't move to Beverly Hills even if she received the full amounts of both payments, there would be the satisfaction that eligible military widows could receive all their entitled benefits.

For more information, go to www.goldstarwives.org.

Journalist and author Chuck N. Baker is an Army veteran of the Vietnam War and a recipient of the Purple Heart. He is the managing editor of Nevada's Veterans Reporter newspaper and the host of the "Veterans Reporter Radio Show" on KLAV (1230 AM) from 8-9 p.m. Thursdays.