Surviving Navy wife gets unexpected financial boost from Blue Water Act
Pat Gaertner is one of more than 40 Crow Wing County residents who’ve successfully earned veteran or survivor benefits through an expansion of eligibility due to exposure to the tactical herbicide Agent Orange, granted in the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019.
BAXTER, Minn. — Pat Gaertner barely managed the words to tell her daughter what she found when she checked the balance of her bank account.
“Anytime they call you crying, that’s not good,” said daughter Nicole Rasmussen, who added she immediately worried her mother was a victim of identity theft or fraud. “You know, I mean, there’s just no way this is going to be a good phone call.”
Instead, it was perhaps the best news Pat received in the more than three years of acute grief since the unexpected loss of her 69-year-old husband Geoff Gaertner. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs granted the Baxter, Minnesota, woman’s claim as a surviving spouse of a Navy veteran who served in the Vietnam War, something that wouldn’t have been possible just a couple of years earlier.
And it was a much bigger boost to her finances than she ever expected: $53,000. She will also receive monthly payments of $1,357.56 for the rest of her life, have access to health care coverage through the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs and be exempt from paying taxes on homesteaded property valued up to $300,000.
“I just never would have imagined it,” she said. “I just thought, you know, if the claim was approved, I’d get something. But I never expected that. … I’m just overwhelmed.”
Gaertner is one of more than 40 Crow Wing County residents who’ve successfully earned veteran or survivor benefits through an expansion of eligibility due to exposure to the tactical herbicide Agent Orange, granted in the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019. This law made eligible Navy or Coast Guard veterans, along with their qualified dependents, who served between 1962 and 1975 aboard a U.S. military vessel inland or within 12 nautical miles from the demarcation line of the waters of Vietnam and Cambodia.
"I think that’s one of the worries, are they going to be OK after I pass away? … I know that would help the veterans feel much more at peace if they knew that this happened.”"
— Erik Flowers, veterans service officer
Erik Flowers, Crow Wing County veterans service officer, said he’s working to get the word out as much as possible to anyone who newly qualifies under the law, including those who suffer from one of the three health conditions added this year as presumptives associated with Agent Orange. These three conditions — bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinsonism, or Parkinson’s disease and other similar diseases — were added as part of the 2021 national defense authorization act passed by Congress.
“I’m just humbled by being able to be a part of this and help them out, and it’s kind of made it one of my missions, to be able to reach all of the veterans in Crow Wing County and/or surrounding areas that are looking for assistance and guidance working with the VA,” Flowers said during a phone interview Tuesday, Nov. 9. “Specifically with our surviving spouses, you know, the veteran passed away wondering if their spouse is going to be taken care of. I think that’s one of the worries, are they going to be OK after I pass away? … I know that would help the veterans feel much more at peace if they knew that this happened.”
Gaertner said her husband of 46 years expressed deep pride in his service to the country, which included two tours in the waters of Vietnam as a torpedoman’s mate after he enlisted in the Navy at age 17 in 1965. But he never sought out benefits for himself, insisting the money was intended for others more impacted than he.
“Maybe because he didn’t have any visible, physical things that happened, versus somebody who lost a limb,” Gaertner said. “That’s the only thing I can think of is maybe he just thought that those people, those guys should be the ones that should be getting the compensation.”
The invisible impacts of war did not leave Geoff unscathed, however. At the time of his death in April 2018, he suffered from two of the presumptive diseases associated with Agent Orange — cardiovascular disease and diabetes — and these underlying conditions combined with a kidney infection that evolved into sepsis were too much for his body to overcome.
The day Geoff died, Pat said she expected she’d be picking him up to take him home from the St. Cloud Hospital.
“When I came on Monday, they said he took a turn and it wasn’t good. And then I had to make the decision to not continue with — he was intubated and they just said it would just prolong,” she said. “And I knew that’s not what he wanted.”
Instead, Pat returned home to an empty, partly renovated farmhouse on Goodrich Lake in Crosslake. The couple purchased the historic property with plans to make it their own. As was his nature, Pat said, Geoff dove in and applied his vast knowledge of building trades, gutting the home and replacing the windows, electrical and plumbing while completing some additions.
Those skills made him a neighborhood favorite when the Gaertners lived on the Whitefish Chain of Lakes in a cabin turned year-round residence.
“The people up and down the road, they just knew that they could knock on the door and he’d do just about anything himself,” Pat said. “… There were people that said to me, you know, ‘We wouldn’t have water in our cabin if it weren’t for Geoff.’ And so I kind of think of that as his legacy.”
The loss of their supportive, loving father and husband left a massive hole in the lives of Pat, Nicole and Nicole’s daughter Hailey.
“I was definitely very worried about her, especially after my dad passed,” Rasmussen said. “And in that farmhouse — it wasn’t done. There was a lot that had to be done to get it to where we could put it on the market, and she was really worried. She was really stressed, and just the weight of that house and any potential issues, and she was kind of in the middle of nowhere.”
Pat eventually hired help to complete the home and moved into a smaller place in Baxter. She took a part-time job at Common Goods thrift store in Crosslake and did her best to heal. A chance encounter while volunteering to help seniors with taxes through the AARP would lead her down the path of changing her fortunes. A client noticed Pat’s bracelet commemorating the Navy and asked if she’d served. When she explained it honored her late husband, the client asked if she’d heard of the recently passed Blue Water Act. She hadn’t.
“I looked into it a little bit, but at the same time I was selling my house, and so I didn’t do anything until this year. It’s been on my list of things to do,” Gaertner said.
She called Crow Wing County Veteran Services and learned Flowers believed she had a very good case to make a claim as a survivor.
“So I went in and met with them and I was overwhelmed. I mean, he just — within three weeks, they had issued a payment for survivor’s disability benefits.”
The money allowed Gaertner to pay off the mortgage on her new home, leaving her debt-free for the first time in her life. She plans to travel more, just like the road trips she and Geoff took in search of antiques. And she intends to donate money to organizations that help veterans as directly as possible.
“I think he’d be happy. Because it’s a huge, huge burden taken off of me, and I don’t have to worry financially,” Gaertner said. “I think that’s what he would want.”
Nicole said it was an amazing feeling to know her mother would have that extra security neither expected, and she knows her dad would feel the same way.
"I want other veterans to look into this. I want other ones to be able to benefit from this. Because I think — I tell people, they gave up a part of their lives to fight for our country and for freedom. They deserve it. They deserve anything they can get, you know?"
— Pat Gaertner
“I was looking up at the sky and going, ‘Holy cow, Dad, can you even imagine?’” Rasmussen said. “… She’s not even quite 70 years old, and she’s got a lot of life ahead of her. … That was all he wanted. He just wanted her to be able to enjoy retirement without that stress and worry that she wouldn’t have the means to make it happen. So he would just — I can just see him up there, just beaming and just knowing that this is for her, and this is what he wanted.”
Gaertner said she hopes her story inspires others to find out if they qualify for benefits, either because of new eligibility or because they qualified all along.
“I want other veterans to look into this. I want other ones to be able to benefit from this. Because I think — I tell people, they gave up a part of their lives to fight for our country and for freedom. They deserve it. They deserve anything they can get, you know?”