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March 15, 2007

An Iraq widow fights for her state benefits

Posted by David Postman at 7:24 AM

Alan Johnson was a Yakima County corrections officer in April 2006 when his reserve Army unit was called up and he went to Iraq. He was killed there January 26.

He was a 44-year old major in the reserves, a husband and step-father. A letter from a fellow soldier read at his funeral described him as a man of Christ, a gentleman, a true warrior and an honorable man.

The Army said he was killed in action; a homemade bomb blew up his Humvee near the border with Iran.

But to the state of Washington, Alan Johnson is a retiree. Technically, officially --whatever you want to call it -- the state considers that Johnson retired early from his government job; too early to have earned full benefits in the state's retirement system to pass on to his family.

An IED retired him of course. As his widow, Victoria, wrote to lawmakers:

My husband died serving his country in Iraq, absent that conflict, he would have been continuing his public service in Yakima as a correction's officer. He loved his job and was committed to being a positive influence at the jail.

The way state law calculates death benefits means that Victoria, will get $26,000 for her husband's 15 years of work for the Yakima County Department of Corrections. If Alan Johnson had lived, if he didn't stay in the reserves and go to fight, if he could have worked until retirement age -- as all who know him are confident he would have -- she would be eligible for $52,000. That's money she'd like to use to become a physical therapist. That's a skill she wants to use in the Army. She's planning to join.

Gov. Chris Gregoire attended Major Johnson's memorial service in Yakima. Victoria Johnson reminded the governor of that in a recent letter and said:

... it is my understanding that Alan's death in Iraq is being treated as though he has chosen an early retirement at age 44. Alan did not choose to retire; he died serving our country, defending our right to freedom, the right to be able to have a retirement system.

Gregoire had not forgotten Victoria Johnson and will support her effort to get the Legislature to change the law, says Press Secretary Lars Erickson. Johnson and her attorney had hoped a bill in the House would be amended to include the provision. But that measure, House Bill 1266, passed the House last week without the amendment.

The underlying bill would provide "a $150,000 death benefit to survivors of state, school district and higher education employees who die as a result of an occupational illness that arises in the course of employment."

Johnson wants to add a section to that bill to increase benefits if an employee in the state retirement system is killed in a war. But it would be less than the $150,000 guaranteed for those who die from an occupational illness.

There will be another attempt to do that this afternoon when the Senate Ways and Means Committee considers the bill. A spokeswoman for the Department of Retirement Systems, which administers the pension system, had no comment on Johnson's efforts.

Erickson said no one from the Administration is scheduled to testify for Johnson today. But the governor's office has made it clear to Ways and Means, he said, that the governor wants Victoria Johnson taken care of.

That's just what she asked Gregoire for in a letter:

In closing I would like to share with you a portion of one of President Bush's speeches given to the troops in Iraq. I found a copy while going through my husband's belongings, which came back this week from Iraq. He had the following underlined;

"I met with the cabinet officials from all walks of life here in Iraq and came away with the distinct impression that they are unified in serving the people of Iraq. They want to succeed. The faith and future of Iraq is in their hands, and our job is to help them succeed " and we will."

The families of our military personnel also need a future. Please, I ask that you help them to succeed by providing them with the benefits that our military personnel have worked so hard for; the benefits that they deserve. Thank you.

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