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'I feel betrayed': Boise veteran fighting terminal cancer aims to end 'military widow's tax'

Jeremy Kitzhaber was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer as a result of decades of working with chemicals and radiation in the U.S. Air Force. Now, he's working to make sure his wife, and others, receive their proper benefits.

BOISE, Idaho — Jeremy Kitzhaber served in the U.S. Air Force for 22 years. As a result of his work with chemicals in the military, Kitzhaber was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, which will eventually take his life.

Now, his wife may not receive the full benefits typically given to military families when a service member or veteran dies. That's because current laws have certain restrictions on what benefits spouses are eligible for.

Since he was diagnosed, he hasn't been able to work and his wife has also had to quit her job to become his caretaker, Kitzhaber said. So she relies on the money coming from the military.

“She’s dependent on my military retirement pay and support," he said. "And now that I’m going to pass a lot shorter than I intended, or even thought I would, she’s not going to have the financial support that I had purchased."

Kitzhaber has now joined the fight to change those laws, part of an effort underway in Congress.

The national VFW, along with several other organizations, are taking aim at what is being called the "Military Widow's Tax Elimination Act."

A proposed piece of legislation would fix what Kitzhaber calls "unfair rules" surrounding survivor benefits.

Kyle Kalman, associate director of National Legislative Service for the VFW, said two bills - one in the House and one in the Senate - could do that. 

Currently, service members can choose to purchase a survivor benefit plan, or SBP, when they retire so that if they die, their spouse would receive 55 percent of the retirement pay.

Kalman said a second veterans affairs program called the DIC - or dependency and indemnity compensation - also allows the spouse an additional tax-free payment if their service member was killed in active duty, or passed away from a service-related cause or injury. That payment is approximately $1,300 per month.

However, under current law, SBP payments are reduced, or offset, by the DIC amount each month. That means not all military widows or spouses can receive both SBP and DIC payments in full, which can cost them thousands of dollars per year in money they should be getting.

Kitzhaber is worried his wife will lose money she's entitled to if he loses his battle with stage 4 cancer. 

“If I pass, under the annuity of SBP, she is supposed to receive 55 percent of my retirement pay," he explained. "But they are going to deny her 90 percent of that because she’s going to get a DIC. It takes her to just about $1,000 a month offset. So my wife will be denied $12,000 per year in a purchased annuity that I paid for."

During his 22 years of service, Kitzhaber was exposed to numerous chemicals and radiation, which he says doctors have told him caused the rare form of abdominal cancer, called pseudomyxoma peritonei. He didn't even know he was sick until 18 months after he retired, when he received his diagnosis. 

Doctors have prescribed immunotherapy drugs, which is slowing the cancer but not stopping it completely.  

Kalman, the VFW spokesman, said the Kitzhabers are one of about 65,000 families nationwide affected by the current benefit rules.

“It’s complete outrage," he said. “What we’re finding is, the government is not pulling their fair share. They send us off to war but they don’t want to pay for the veterans coming home.”

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According to Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, who is a co-sponsor of the Senate's version of the Military Widow's Tax Elimination Act, said it affects about 340 widows in Idaho. 

Because service members are moving every few years and changing bases, spouses often can't find high-paying, steady jobs - or even work at all, in some cases.

“This is actually a big issue because when you look at military spouses, they are the highest unemployed demographic in the United States,” Kalman explained. 

Kitzhaber said that's true of his own wife, who was never able to have a career because of their frequent moves. That's why he purchased an SBP to begin with - so she would be taken care of if something happened to him. 

“I feel betrayed," he said. “I might not appear furious but it’s very upsetting."

When asked why no legislation to change the current rules has been passed by Congress before, Kalman said it always comes down to one main issue: funding.  

“The actual number one argument on the Hill is how to pay for the offset,” he said.

Kalman said it would cost an estimated $5.3 billion over 10 years to fund the offset to allow widows to receive both SBP and DIC in full. 

To remedy the funding issue, the VFW has come up with a possible solution that the organization feels is reasonable, and would not raise the national debt. The proposed solution would pull money from the military retirement trust fund, which is supported by military members' monthly SBP payments. 

Currently, the Senate bill has close to 60 congressional co-sponsors, including Idaho senators Jim Risch and Mike Crapo. 

“It is burdensome and unfair to deny the surviving families of military retirees – including 340 survivors in Idaho – the full benefits earned by their service members’ sacrifice," Crapo said in a statement. "During their service, many of our nation’s service members choose to purchase annuities through the Survivor Benefit Plan to ultimately provide for their spouses and families after their deaths. This bill would stop the stripping of these benefits that our veterans themselves purchased and earned for their families.”

Sen. Risch also sent a statement to KTVB about his support for the bill: 

“Our nation’s veterans kept their promise to defend our nation, and it is only right that we honor our commitments to them and their families," Risch said. "Military spouses and their children should not be forced to endure the hardship of any added financial uncertainty. This common-sense legislation would ensure families receive the full survivor benefits they are due and that they more than deserve.”

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Kitzhaber said he's talked to Rep. Mike Simpson, who also supports the bill. On Tuesday, he also sent information about the issue to Rep. Russ Fulcher to hopefully get him on board as well.  

According to Kalman, the VFW is joining forces with several veterans organizations and military widows' groups to come together as one coalition to advocate for the passage of the bill. He said they are working to inform more people and gain more support, including making their own official hashtag for the movement, #AxeWidowsTax. 

The VFW is also planning a "Storm the Hill" event in Washington, D.C. on May 22. 

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