By Christian M. Wade
---- — IPSWICH — George Foster returned home to Massachusetts from World War II after two years in a British hospital recovering from a tank shell wound suffered in the Siege of Bastogne in Western Europe.
He built a modest home on a tree-lined county road in coastal Ipswich — where he and his wife raised four children — before passing away at age 84 in 2007.
As the widow of a combat-injured veteran, his wife, Robertta, was entitled to 100 percent property tax abatement on the couple’s home under a state law enacted to help wounded warriors returning from Iraq and Afghanistan but that also applied to veterans of earlier wars.
Yet nobody told the aging widow she was eligible, family members say, so she continued to pay property taxes until her death three years later at 87.
Foster’s family learned of the tax abatement law as they prepared to settle their mother’s estate. The discovery sparked a three-year battle with the state and the Town of Ipswich that culminated last week when Gov. Deval Patrick signed legislation reimbursing the Fosters for more than $15,000 of erroneous tax payments.
“Nobody wanted to take responsibility for this anywhere along the bureaucratic chain,” said Holly Foster, 57, who said town officials resisted efforts to recoup the taxes her mother paid. “They threw out everything they could as reasons not to pursue it.”
The daughter, who still lives in Ipswich, said the family’s conflict with Ipswich Town Hall was never about the money.
“It was always about the principle,” she said. “If they could do something like this to my parents, who served their country so honorably, how many other veterans did they overlook?”
Town officials said they couldn’t reimburse the family without an act of the Legislature because the appeal period — 30 days after taxes were paid — had long expired.
“The only way we could legally pay this is through home rule legislation,” said Town Manager Robin Crosbie. “The bottom line is that we will be making the Foster estate whole.”
A year ago, the issue went before Town Meeting at Holly Foster’s request. But voters rejected the proposal to reimburse the family. She said Ipswich officials urged voters to shoot down the request because the legislative option would allow the town to get reimbursed for the costs.
“They didn’t want the town to have to pay it — they wanted to get reimbursed,” Foster said. “I was shocked.”
In 2006, the Legislature amended the state’s veterans benefits by granting the surviving spouses of soldiers, sailors, or members of the National Guard whose “death occurred as a proximate result of an injury sustained or disease contracted in a combat zone” a 100 percent property tax abatement, so long as they don’t remarry.
Foster’s family said there was no question about their mother’s eligibility. A letter from George Foster’s physician stated his death in 2007 was due in part to “injuries sustained in World War II.”
State veterans officials admit they didn’t do a good job promoting the new tax benefit to surviving family members of veterans. They said the spouse’s provision was intended for veterans who died as a result of injuries from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It really didn’t get a lot of publicity,” said Terrance Hart, director of the Eastern Essex County district of the Massachusetts Department of Veterans Affairs, which covers Ipswich and seven other North Shore towns. “There aren’t many World War II veterans left and it’s such a narrowly defined group of people that I think a lot of people overlooked it.”
Hart said the Foster case has prompted the veterans department to improve its efforts to inform veterans about their tax benefits. But, he said, like other federal and state tax exemptions, the onus is often on the property owner to request them.
“If you are entitled to something you sometimes have to make your demands,” he said. “In this case that didn’t happen” during the three years Robertta Foster was eligible for the spouse’s abatement.
George Foster grew up in Maine and enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942 at the age 20. A disability of partial blindness in one eye found him posted as an engineer in California. He later transferred to the 21st Armored Infantry Battalion, 11th Armored Division — the so-called “Thunderbolt Division” — where he served as a scout and sniper in Western Europe. His division fought German troops through the French and Belgian countryside as part of the pivotal Battle of the Bulge.
Foster was wounded in the Siege of Bastogne in December 1944 when a tank shell exploded next to him, his daughter said, and was virtually “brought back from the dead” by Army medics. He was evacuated to England where he spent two years recovering from his injuries.
“He was one of only six from his company to survive the war,” Holly Foster said. “My father was never supposed to live and he was never supposed to have children after that. But he lived to be 84, with four children and eight grandchildren.”
Foster’s wartime service earned him a Purple Heart and a Bronze star, along with a dozen other commendations.
Robertta Foster, who also grew up in Maine, served as a corporal in the Marine Corps during the war. She was stationed in Arlington, Va., where she sent letters to the widows and families of war casualties, informing them of death benefits.
State Sen. Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican, who sponsored the Foster tax reimbursement bill, said the case shows the state needs to do a better job disseminating information about veterans benefits so nobody falls through the cracks.
“We need to have better communication,” said Tarr. “This is a symptom of what happens when that isn’t the case.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.