Arlene Murray was three-years-married to the love of her life when the unthinkable happened: he was diagnosed with cancer…
It was Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. After surgery to remove a large tumor, the doctors informed them that the cancer had spread. Dennis Murray passed away in May of 2018.
Though it was under much different circumstances, Arlene Murray was unfortunately no stranger to death. Her prior husband was on active duty in the United States Army when he died; Murray was 31 years old — a young mother of two daughters — and she was surrounded by military support. However, after the funeral, she felt as if she was forgotten and on her own.
Murray first became aware of Gold Star Wives when the casualty officer gave her a Gold Star pin. She committed herself to being a single mother, and stayed very active in the military community. Murray served three years on the National Board of Directors for Gold Star Wives of America, Inc as a VAVS (Veterans Administration Voluntary Service) Certified Officer. She is also the former president and spokesperson of Gold Star Wives, Tahoma Chapter.
Nearly a decade after becoming a Gold Star Wife, Murray reunited with her high school sweetheart Dennis. They had been apart for 25 years. The couple realized that they had been located at the same bases, at the same time during their military travels. They felt destined to be together.
“Once we discovered one another, we waited 17 years to get married, until I reached the age of 57. The VA told me if I remarried before then, I would lose my DIC [Dependency and Indemnity] benefit from my prior spouse,” Murray said. “I believe every veteran wants the reassurance of VA benefits for their spouse if they die.”
As a surviving spouse and single mother, Murray learned to be her own advocate; she used her time to go to college and get her law degree. Later, as she grew stronger within her career, Murray assisted military widows and veterans alike. The Murrays married in 2015, when her financial security was no longer at risk.
Dennis Murray was an honorably retired Staff Sergeant from the U.S. Marine Corps. The official, VA-documented cause of his death was linked to the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, NC, where he was stationed in the mid 1970s. In order for a widow to receive DIC after their spouse’s death, the VA first must decide if that spouse even qualifies as a Gold Star Widow, which is determined by their spouse’s disability award letter using the US Code Title 10, or USC Title 38. Then, there are two circumstances for eligibility:
- The event of an active duty death, in the case of Murray’s prior husband.
- From a service-connected condition that caused or aggravated death, in the case of Dennis Murray.
“I was told I cannot receive two DIC payments because they consider it ‘double dipping’,” Murray said.
After being denied compensation, Murray was in a state of financial distress. The VA didn’t cover her late husband’s medical costs, and TRICARE would only cover part of it; without Dennis’s military benefits and disability, the bulk of her income was gone; she did not qualify for social security or a large insurance payout. Her DIC from her previous husband was less than $1,300 a month.
With her strong legal background and tenacity, Murray had to take a stand.
“At no time should a surviving spouse have to fight the bureaucratic system to be benefited when their spouse dies,” Murray stated.
Murray filed a Notice of Disagreement (NOD) with the VA, believing that they had no legal standing or precedence to deny her claim for DIC. She is determined to set the legal bar not only for herself, but for other two-time Gold Star Wives in similar situations. Murray is willing to go all the way to Congress if she has to.
Advice for new gold star wives
For anyone who has recently lost a spouse in the military, Murray recommends ongoing support. When the funeral is over, initial supporters may go back to their normal lives, while the grieving spouse is still working through their loss. Local bases have Survivor Outreach Services (SOS) offices. TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) is another resource that offers workshops and 24-hour bereavement counseling. Murray likens the grieving process to a rollercoaster: full of ups and downs that you simply can’t be ready for.
“I wasn’t prepared to see my husband’s name on that headstone,” Murray recalled. “That is when it finally hit me — he’s gone and not coming back.”
Along with a support system, Murray advises new Gold Star Wives to be prepared for financial hiccups. As somebody who has not been compensated for her late husband’s death, Murray knows firsthand what it’s like to worry about paying a mortgage. For spouses who have received a financial windfall: be careful, and invest that money wisely. Unexpected medical bills or financial gaps may unfortunately be a part of the process.
Murray is still grieving while she fights the system. Starting over alone has left her with an uphill battle for a government benefit that will aid in her basic survival. She finds daily motivation with prayer.
“Use your faith to get you through the day… one day at a time.”
There’s power in numbers
At last count, there were over 9,050 members in The Gold Star Wives of America, Inc, located in all 50 states. They are a lobbying organization that fights for the benefits of surviving military spouses and their children. GSW honors their sacrifice by dedicating work to the welfare of Gold Star families and making sure they are properly compensated.
One does not have to join GSW to be considered a Gold Star Wife. However, becoming a member keeps you abreast on all their issues and updated benefits (though there is an annual membership fee). It also connects you with others who have similar stories and experiences, something that Arlene Murray is especially grateful for.
“I have become a stronger person and learned a great deal about the grief process. I realized I was no longer alone as a military surviving spouse,” Murray said. “It has instilled my confidence as a leader, and made me such a successful advocate for our causes.”
To find out more about GSW, visit: https://www.goldstarwives.org/