OKLAHOMA CITY – The widow of a soldier killed in the Fort Hood shooting could get relief from a $6,000 tax bill under a measure Oklahoma legislators are considering that would grant some families benefits similar to those given after acts of terrorism.
Jennifer Hunt, 30, had been married just short of three months when her husband, Jason, was killed in the rampage at Fort Hood on Nov. 5, 2009, when a U.S. Army major fatally shot 13 people and injured more than 30 others.
"He joined the Army after high school and did a tour in Iraq and it was there that he re-enlisted for six more years on his 21st birthday so that he could continue to serve," President Barack Obama said of Hunt at a memorial shortly after the shooting.
Jason Hunt, 22, was preparing for a deployment to Iraq. He and Jennifer had recently purchased a house in Fort Hood, and Jennifer and their three children were preparing to move there.
Though some consider the shooting an act of terrorism, the Defense Department classified it as an act of workplace violence — which means family members are not entitled to the same federal benefits as survivors of an act of terrorism. Late last year, the U.S. Army began an investigation into whether it should indeed be classified as terrorism so victims would be eligible for benefits or to receive the Purple Heart.
Hunt said she was misinformed at the time of her husband's death and believed that she qualified for a property tax exemption granted to survivors of terrorism. But this year, she was notified that she was ineligible for the benefit and received a $6,000 bill for back taxes.
"I was ready to hand over my entire life savings," Hunt said. "When a military person dies, most people look at you and think you must be rolling in the cash now. My husband split the life insurance policy he had 50/50 between me and his parents, so I paid off our house and my college debt, and I don't have anything left after that. The $200 a month we get from the military will make us or break us."
Hunt went to the Cleveland County Treasurer's Office, where employees brought her situation to the attention of Treasurer Jim Reynolds, a former Oklahoma state senator. Reynolds contacted his brother, Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, who drafted legislation that would address Hunt's situation. Rep. Reynolds previously served in the U.S. Air Force and both brothers were raised in a military family.
"Any time we have a serviceman killed while serving our country, whether on foreign soil or especially if it's at a federal facility, I just feel strongly that we should be able to take care of him," Jim Reynolds said. "I think it's an oversight: Honestly, sometimes with laws we just haven't gotten there yet, and so I think it passing committee unanimously is a reflection that others feel the same way."
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 100 percent disabled veterans who are disabled while on active duty received a full property tax exemption in Oklahoma.
The new measure would extend that privilege to the surviving spouse of a person killed during an act of violence occurring within a federal military installation which could be classified as "terrorism" or "combat related." The law would become retroactively effective through 2009 on Nov. 1, 2015.
"I wasn't trying to solve it just for her, the real problem is that Barack Obama has refused to call this a terrorist attack, and she would have received all sorts of benefits," Rep. Mike Reynolds said.
The bill has passed the House of Representatives, had its first reading in the Senate and has been sent to the Senate's finance committee.
Other states with larger military populations already have similar provisions to provide for military families.
"I think it hasn't been that big of an issue here, and there's not many fallen soldier families in Oklahoma, so we're not really a priority," Hunt said. "I had thought about moving out of state because I felt neglected here, and my widow friends in other states have so many resources, so it's comforting knowing someone cares."