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Kathy Prout On The Cusp Of A Successful Lobbying Effort For Surviving Spouse Benefits

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Posted: Friday, December 27, 2019 1:19 pm

Rear Admiral James G. (Jay) Prout III was the commander of the USS Carl Vinson Aircraft Carrier Group, had just been selected for his second star and was under consideration for a third star before he died. A graduate of Exeter Academy in 1961 and the U.S. Naval Academy in 1966, Prout earned a master’s degree in International Relations from Harvard University in 1983. He made the successful transition from riverine boat command to becoming a surface officer. With that background, Prout was well on his way to a lengthy and distinguished Naval career.

Over the course of 24 years, Jay and Kathy Prout and their family, which included three children, had moved 26 times. Jay was a Navy lieutenant when the couple met in her hometown of Newport, Rhode Island. Kathy was still in college at Salve Regina University earning a double major in sociology and special education, plus a minor in psychology.

May 17, 1995, Rear Admiral Prout was a backseat passenger in a F-18 plane that was en route to a meeting in St. Louis with McDonnell Douglass. Kathy said of the accident, “The plane crashed into the mountains near Taos, New Mexico. We didn’t know where he was. The next day they found the wreckage in a remote area. The crash affected two widows and five children.”

At the time of Jay’s death, the family was living on NAS North Island. Their oldest child Branden was in college, daughter Heather was in high school and Gregory was in third grade at Village Elementary School. Prior to his death, Jay Prout had enrolled in the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP), which allows for uniformed services retirees to elect to provide continuing financial support for an eligible survivor. Automatic coverage is extended to survivors of service members who die on duty. This program serves as an insurance plan paid for by the service member. 

Another benefit available to survivors of veterans whose death is determined to have been caused by military service is the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) benefit, which is a Veterans Administration program. But Kathy Prout soon learned there was a financial offset involved, which meant that she and 63,000 other military widows nation-wide couldn’t collect on both plans. Over the nearly 25 years since Jay’s death, Kathy estimates the offset has cost her and her children $350,000.

Prout and I collaborated on an article on this topic in August 2016 and the following quote she provided for the story has stayed with me since. “After Jay died, I lost 75 percent of our household income, but none of the bills. A casualty assistance officer was sitting at my dining room table explaining the benefits to me. I found out I was entitled to this thing called SBP. I had never heard of DIC. I didn’t understand the numbers. I was supposed to get this much, but I am only going to get this much. That makes no sense, but that’s what it is. After years of getting a statement that showed I was losing $1,000 every month, I thought surely somebody will fix this. I didn’t know who to complain to. That’s a lot of money.”

Prout provided some background for why she thought the financial offset was created. “Back in 1972, during the Vietnam war, the military was basically thought of as pond scum. If you went to work for the federal government out of the service, your income, disability income and Social Security income were all offset by military pay. The Department of Defense looked it as ‘double-dipping.’ President Richard Nixon started the Survivor Benefit Plan, where military compensation ends the day of the service member’s death. Back then, the life insurance benefit was only $10,000 and widows received Dependency and Indemnity Compensation. Over the years, the government offset pay, the Social Security offset and the offset for disabled retirees were eliminated and the widows were the only ones left with the financial offset. The fact they called it the Widow’s Tax shot us in the foot, because it sounded like we were trying not to pay our taxes.”

In 2016 during our first interview, Prout noted that the concept of eliminating the offset for Widows had been included in some previous legislation, only to be stripped out of bills before it could be voted on by Congress. Over the years, Prout made approximately 100 trips to Capitol Hill to lobby for legislation to eliminate the widow’s financial offset, a process which she described. “My daughter used to live in New York, and I would visit her almost every month. I would take a train from New York to Washington, D.C. and walk the Halls of Congress for a couple of days and then go back to New York. She lived in New York for six years, and before that I would fly from California to Washington D.C. at least six times a year. But the real story began in 2013 with my Facebook group and our grassroots advocacy. There are privacy laws and the widows interested in this were having trouble finding each other. And in 2013, the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) got involved and I was on the MOAA National Surviving Spouses Committee. In 2013 I coerced six people I knew to get involved with our Facebook group, which grew to over 2,000 people. We developed (meaning Kathy developed) fact sheets, we wrote sample letters the members could personalize and send to Congress, and we gave them daily and weekly thoughts on who to call and Email. We provided contact information for Representatives and Senators, and we gave our members the names of their staffers. We targeted members of the Armed Services Committee, The Budget Committee, the Ways and Means Committee, the Appropriations Committee and the Veterans Committee because they pay the indemnity compensation. We had an army of military widows, active duty spouses, retirees, disabled military retirees and we all worked together. I kind of enabled them to participate in the Federal Government and it worked.”

Prout is quick to point out that it was a bipartisan effort to get the widows’ financial offset lifted as part of the National Defense Appropriations Act (NDAA), that is due to be passed by the U.S. Senate Thursday (Dec. 19) and signed by President Donald Trump shortly thereafter. Prout plans to be in Washington for the signing of the NDAA, as the guest of MOAA.

Prout recalled her early lobbying efforts, which started with Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA 53rd), formerly Representative of the 52nd California Congressional District which includes Coronado. “The first time I was in her office 14 years ago, all I could do was cry, when I tried to explain the financial offset the widows of survivors were experiencing. She was on the House Armed Services Committee for a long time. Senator Jim Inhofe from Oklahoma was wonderful. In the House we had some heavy hitters including Representative Jim Yarmuth (D-KY 3rd District), Representative Adam Smith (D-WA 9th District) who is Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA 12th). I have been in her office many times. She has been a supporter and enabled a lot of the benefits for the post 9-11 widows to pass. She has been really good to military widows. Scott Peters (D-CA 52nd) was a major supporter. The sponsors of the bill were Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC 2nd) and Rep. Yarmuth. We also had a lot of support in the Senate from Sen. Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island), Sen. Doug Jones (D-Alabama) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California). She was a key person on the Senate Appropriations Committee and a Co-sponsor of the bill from Day One.”

There is mixed news relating to the Bill that will repeal the Widow’s financial offset. Prout and none of the other survivors who were impacted will be able to recover funds that have been lost to date. “Everything is moving forward, and the benefit will start in 2021,” Prout explained. “It will take the Department of Defense a year to staff it and figuring out the 40,000 people who didn’t receive the Survivor Benefit Plan funds, will be a huge mathematical problem. They need to have the date of death, figure out what the SBP payments were at that day, and calculate the benefit moving forward, including cost of living allowances. In 2021, we get one-third of whatever the Survivor Benefit is. In 2022, we get two-thirds of the benefit and by the third year in 2023, we get the whole thing. It’s almost a miracle. When I heard the Widows’ Tax was in the NDAA, my stomach was in knots. In the past they never fixed the whole thing, they always left some people out. The bill’s language says that no federal program can offset the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) benefit. There are no premiums to pay, and no paybacks. The VFW, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), the MOAA and my little army of military widows really worked hard. We are like a sisterhood. When the military wives decide to do something, we can get it done.”

It turns out that Congress doing the right thing for military surviving spouses comes with a hefty price tag. Over the next decade, the program is projected to cost $5.7 billion. The total of 63,000 surviving spouses who will benefit from the legislation includes 6,054 widows in California and Prout estimates approximately two dozen Coronado residents are impacted. “There are probably more than that in Coronado, because we are a quiet group,” Prout added.

In the meantime, the Prout Family continues to grow and change residences, with youngest son Gregory (CHS ’04) moving soon to Kowloon City, Hong Kong. Kathy said, “Gregory lives now in Seattle, but he’s moving soon. He’s an artist and a toy designer. He has a new position with the company and designs expensive toys for Hasbro. He is the Special Products and Licensing Manager and he’s very happy. Our oldest son Brendan (St. Augustine ’91) is a pastor in El Cajon and they have two children. And our daughter Heather Prout Patino (CHS ’95) has three children. She, her husband and family moved from New York to live with me. It actually is working really well. I had some health problems a while back and needed some help. And they needed a place to live.”

In theory, with the signing of the Widow’s Tax legislation coming any day and with five grandchildren, Kathy Prout is due some time off, but maybe not right away. “There are other issues,” Prout said last week. “But I’m not going to work as hard as I did on the Widow’s Tax. There’s still a Gold Star Kiddy Tax and we need to solve that problem for most of the kids.”

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