The first time Amy Siegel visited the Department of Veterans Affairs to apply for survivor benefits, her husband had been dead for less than five weeks and she was four months pregnant.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Nicholas Siegel had survived three deployments to Iraq only to lose his life to a distracted driver 1,000 feet from his parents’ home in Stafford County.
Amy Siegel staggered through grief and court hearings as she prepared to give birth to the daughter she would have to raise alone. But it was a comfort to know her husband’s 18 years of military service would provide a measure of financial security in the form of a tax-free monthly benefit for widows of wartime veterans.
Accompanied by the casualty officer assigned to assist her, she filled out benefits paperwork at the VA’s regional office in Baltimore. A backlog of VA claims meant it could take several months until the pay kicked in, but there was a stopgap: a separate award called the Survivor Benefit Plan that would automatically lower after the VA pay began.
Five months passed. Neither came.
The Army had submitted incorrect paperwork, she said, and it was holding up both payments.
In March, seven months after her first visit to the VA, the stopgap funds, including back payments, kicked in. She asked if she would have to return the money once she received the retroactive VA pay. She wouldn’t. Her husband had worked hard and sacrificed for that money, the man on the line told her. She said she asked a second time, and a third, and finally felt assured. It was hers to keep.
In April, a letter arrived from the VA. The agency had deposited more than $10,000 dating back to Nicholas Siegel’s death eight months before. That same day, her bank called. The money had gone into someone else’s account.
Over the next several months, she would make more than two dozen phone calls to the VA and to her bank. She would fill out forms, contact her congressman and file a formal complaint with the VA’s inspector general. Her calls would be routed to call centers around the country, so she would rarely, if ever, speak to the same person twice, and they would often give conflicting instructions.
She would update her bank account number for the VA multiple times, but her first regular monthly payment—this one for more than $1,200—would go into the wrong account, too.
When the mistakes were finally fixed six months later, she would learn there’d been another one. This time, it could ultimately cost her $17,000.
NICK AND AMY
She was Amy Anderson when she and Nicholas Siegel met online in 2011. He was in Iraq, but his family lived in Stafford. She was working as a hand therapist in Fredericksburg.
The distance made for a bumpy start, but by September, he was stateside, stationed in Fort Riley, Kansas. They talked or messaged every day. Almost every weekend, he flew to Virginia or drove halfway across the country to see her.
One day in June 2012, they took an 8-mile canoe ride down the Rappahannock River. The ride was rough, and they argued the whole time, shouting over the sound of rushing water. Later that day, he asked her to marry him.
She was prepared to say no, but she couldn’t resist him. They exchanged vows in front of family and a handful of friends in a backyard ceremony in June 2013.
He was stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland when they settled in Nicholas Siegel’s bachelor apartment in a bad part of town and waited for their house to be built in Pennsylvania. He was often away, and she commuted more than an hour to and from work each day. Two pregnancies ended in miscarriages, and the strain took its toll.
By the time they marked their three-year anniversary in June 2016, Amy Siegel was pregnant again. A series of early tests showed a healthy baby girl.
There was more good news: The Army moved Nicholas Siegel to Fort Belvoir, into a high-profile position that would perfectly position him for a civilian job when he retired in two years’ time.
“We were at the best point of our relationship,” she said. “We were best friends. We were what each other had.”
They found a house to rent near Quantico.
They were coming home.
‘A horrible mistake’
On July 21, 2016, five days before Amy Siegel was set to rejoin her husband in Stafford, Nicholas Siegel came to a stop on his motorcycle on State Route 610 near Ridgeway Road.
It was 5:30 p.m. A 17-year-old driver rammed into the back of his bike, knocking him off and hurtling his motorcycle into oncoming traffic. He died at the crash site.
Amy Siegel was just getting home from work when her mother called with the news. It hit her so hard she collapsed to the floor.
She moved through the days like she was moving through water. Sometimes the grief was so stark she couldn’t stop crying, sometimes so numbing she felt guilty because it didn’t hurt more. She found strength in her growing belly and in a fitness studio, where she practiced barre.
On Jan. 6, 2017, a most bittersweet day, she gave birth to Genevieve Nichole Siegel. They’d picked out the first name together; Amy Siegel chose Nichole for the father the newborn baby so closely resembled.
In March, the driver pleaded guilty to reckless driving; two months later, Amy Siegel sat on the witness stand and talked about the last 10 months without her husband.
The driver lost her license for a year; at the family’s request, she would have to share her story at driver’s education classes rather than go to jail.
“She just made a horrible mistake,” Amy Siegel said. “I didn’t want two lives ruined.”
The court case behind her, Amy Siegel felt a sense of freedom. The fog of her grief had at last begun to lift. After a series of delays, she’d finally received the award from the survivor’s benefit plan meant to tide her over.
On April 12, the bank called. Was she expecting a large sum from the VA? Because another customer had contacted the bank to report an erroneous $10,000-plus deposit. The bank representative said she’d tried to contact the VA, but no one there would talk to her. Amy Siegel would have to call.
She did. She learned that the VA had submitted an incorrect account number during that August 2016 visit to Baltimore. She faxed the correct information to the VA because the agency couldn’t update it over the phone, she said.
She asked about retrieving her money, and the VA representative told her he was filling out a permission to transfer funds form, which he would fax to her bank.
The bank never got the fax because the bank had given an overseas fax number. The VA would have to fax the form again.
Amy Siegel called the VA back. The permission to transfer funds form was not in her paperwork, she said she was told, but that didn’t matter, because the only way to retrieve the funds was to put a tracer on them.
The tracer could take six to eight weeks.
She asked whether her account information had been updated. It hadn’t, so she’d have to fax it again, the VA told her.
The first regular monthly payment from the VA hit the wrong account. Amy Siegel called again to start the tracer process for that, too.
In June, nearly a year after Nicholas Siegel’s death, she began receiving $1,569.59 a month from the VA. But she still seemed no closer to getting the missing back pay and first month’s payment —a total of $11,300.
Her frustration started to show. A VA representative grew silent during a call, then accused her of ranting, she said. A few weeks later, the person who answered the phone told Amy Siegel she’d help her—as long as she didn’t get an attitude.
Six weeks passed, then eight, then 10, and in a July call to the VA, a representative asked whether she’d contacted the U.S. Department of Treasury. Amy Siegel asked to speak to a manager—anyone who could help.
“I know it can be done,” Amy Siegel said.
The response, she said, was “not necessarily.” Only a supervisor could decide whether her case warranted a call back from a manager.
Amy Siegel ended the call and contacted her congressman. On July 31, she got a letter from the VA that said it was tracing the missing payments, but in the meantime, it had issued paper checks.
If the checks were sent, she never got them, and three more calls to the VA by a congressional aide went unanswered, she said.
On Sept. 23, Amy Siegel relayed her story to a family friend. Jim Anthony was a retired Navy veteran who worked for the federal government and had connections.
He’d never heard anything quite like this.
“Let me see what I can do to help,” Anthony told her, and soon he was emailing a nearly four-page, single-spaced timeline of Amy Siegel’s year-long ordeal to everyone he knew and thought could help.
“There’s literally no excuse,” he said.
Earlier this month, a call center manager phoned Amy Siegel with news: The VA was depositing the missing pay into her account.
In response to a series of questions about the delay, press secretary Curt Cashour wrote: “We sincerely regret the inconvenience that this delay posed for Mrs. Siegel and are constantly working to improve our benefits delivery processes for Veterans and their families.”
Cashour did not respond to specific questions about Amy Siegel’s case. Nor did he respond to questions emailed twice about how common her experience is, how the VA plans to prevent it from happening again or what avenues are available to those without an advocate like Anthony or a lawmaker.
The $11,300 arrived in Amy Siegel’s account as promised—twice. One would have to be returned, of course.
But she wasn’t expecting the call that came last week. The spousal benefits pay hadn’t decreased when the VA pay kicked in. She’d have to pay it back along with the large payment she’d been assured she could keep. All told, she owed $17,400. That was in addition to the second $11,300 payment sent accidentally. If the VA simply withholds the payments until all the money is repaid, she will have to delve into her savings for expenses beyond her mortgage and household bills.
“The hardest aspect of all of this is not having my husband here and not being able to make memories with him anymore and doing this all myself,” she said. The VA is “a migraine that won’t go away.”
She wants to move back to Virginia, just as they were set to before that awful day a year and a half ago. But until the ordeal with the VA is resolved and she sells their house in Pennsylvania, she is stuck.
She keeps her husband’s clothes hanging in the closet the way he left them, his toiletries in the bathroom. Each morning is a reminder that he isn’t there, that she didn’t get to tell him goodbye or tell him she loved him one more time.
Instead of finally being able to tuck away the piles of paperwork, to let the frustration of the administrative nightmare subside and focus on a new normal, Amy Siegel has made a decision.
She wishes she didn’t have to. But she’ll keep battling the VA.