Joe Krumbach is now getting widower’s benefits from the United States Veteran’s Administration (VA) on behalf of his late husband, Gerald Hatcher, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War.
The email came as Joe Krumbach was stepping off a downtown bus. He had to stop moving, step to the side and take it all in.
“This can’t be real,” he remembered thinking. “What did I just do?”
Well, he finally got what he deserved: widower’s benefits from the United States Veteran’s Administration (VA) on behalf of his late husband, Gerald Hatcher, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War.
In the process, Krumbach, 49, became the first gay person in the state to receive veteran’s benefits as a widower.
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“It was really a challenge, but it was something that needed to occur,” said Krumbach, a mortgage banker who lives on Vashon Island. “What is right is right and what is wrong is wrong. I wanted to take it on.”
When gay marriage was legalized in this state three years ago, City Hall was packed with beaming couples. Names were changed, and the usual paperwork followed.
But some things, like survivor’s benefits, proved to be harder to suss out.
Krumbach and Hatcher didn’t wait for same-sex marriage to be legal here before throwing a lavish commitment ceremony in 2003. It was officiated by a rabbi and attended by some 200 family members and friends.
Five years later, in 2008, Hatcher died of liver disease, with Krumbach by his side. They had been together for 19 years.
In 2013, after same-sex marriage had been legalized here and in other states, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that denying federal benefits to same-sex married couples was unconstitutional.
So Krumbach applied for retroactive survivor’s benefits, or dependency and indemnity compensation, which is tax-free money paid to survivors of service members who die on duty or who were disabled from service-related causes. (Hatcher had been declared 100 percent disabled because of his post-traumatic stress disorder.)
That required getting the state to change Hatcher’s death certificate to list Krumbach as his spouse.
Krumbach submitted some 40 affidavits signed by those who attended their ceremony, and marriage certificate signed by two witnesses and the rabbi who had officiated.
But in August 2014, the VA rejected Krumbach’s claim for so-called dependency and indemnity compensation, saying that same-sex marriage had not be legal at the time of their union.
Krumbach appealed, and several weeks ago was awarded monthly benefits and a portion of the retroactive benefits — but not dating back to the time of Hatcher’s death, when same-sex marriage was not legal here. Krumbach is still hoping to receive that portion, he said.
Hatcher was drafted long before the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” days of the military. It didn’t matter that he was a gay man, Krumbach said.
“They took all warm bodies,” Krumbach. “And it was a different time.”
Hatcher was shot twice, and received two Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars.
“This is a guy who did what he was supposed to for his country,” Krumbach said. “And while I hate the word ‘entitled,’ he’s earned this.”
It’s not clear how many more might be eligible for the benefit, according to his lawyer, David Ward of Legal Voice, who took the case pro bono, because it had “the potential to change the laws for LGBT people.”
“It’s one of those unknowable figures,” Ward said of others who may be eligible. But since Krumbach’s case was settled, he has heard from two people seeking to receive benefits after the passing of their same-sex partners.
The good news is that Washington is ahead of the rest of the country when it comes to issues like child custody, Ward said. Lambda Legal just sued the state of North Carolina for not recognizing two same-sex spouses as the legal parents of a child.
“We had good laws on the books,” Ward said. “It’s a matter of winning justice for people who were, in every way, a married couple.
“It’s nice to be able to win justice for folks who had been denied it.”
Krumbach will not take advantage of the VA’s medical benefits; he’s covered at work, he said, “and I don’t want to take it from someone who needs it more than I do.”
There’s some honor in that — but more in the fact that while Hatcher’s life choices weren’t recognized while he was in the military, they are after his death.
“Every month, I get affirmation of his life, of his service,” Krumbach said, “and everything he did.”