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Veterans' Benefits Live On Long After Bullets Stop

This is the story of 84-year-old Irene Triplett, who still receives a VA pension for her father's service in the Civil War. The VA is also still paying benefits to 16 widows and children of veterans from the 1898 Spanish-American War and 4,038 widows, sons and daughters of World War I veterans.



WILKESBORO, N.C.—Each month, Irene Triplett collects $73.13 from the Department of Veterans Affairs, a pension payment for her father's military service—in the Civil War.

Mose Triplett, second from right, with his first wife, Mary, and unidentified people. After Mary's death in the 1920s, Pvt. Triplett married Elida Hall, 50 years his junior. She suffered from mental disabilities, as did their daughter Irene. Collection of Dorothy Killian

Ms. Triplett's pension, small as it is, stands as a reminder that war's bills don't stop coming when the guns fall silent. The VA is still paying benefits to 16 widows and children of veterans from the 1898 Spanish-American War.

The last U.S. World War I veteran died in 2011. But 4,038 widows, sons and daughters get monthly VA pension or other payments. The government's annual tab for surviving family from those long-ago wars comes to $16.5 million.

Spouses, parents and children of deceased veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan received $6.7 billion in the 2013 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. Payments are based on financial need, any disabilities, and whether the veteran's death was tied to military service.

Those payments don't include the costs of fighting or caring for the veterans themselves. A Harvard University study last year projected the final bill for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars would hit $4 trillion to $6 trillion in the coming decades.

Irene Triplett, 84, the last living recipient of VA benefits connected

to the Civil War. Her father, Mose Triplett, fought for both South and North. Michael M. Phillips/The Wall Street Journal (Ms. Triplett), Jerry Orton (certificate)

Eric Shinseki, the secretary of Veterans Affairs, often cites President Abraham Lincoln's call, in his second inaugural address, for Americans "to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan."

"The promises of President Abraham Lincoln are being delivered, 150 years later, by President Barack Obama, " Secretary Shinseki said in a speech last fall. "And the same will be true 100 years from now—the promises of this president will be delivered by a future president, as yet unborn."

A declaration of war sets in motion expenditures that can span centuries, whether the veterans themselves were heroes, cowards or something in between.

Ms. Triplett's father, Pvt. Mose Triplett, was born in 1846, on the mountainous Tennessee border in Watauga County, N.C. He was 16 years old when he got caught up in the fratricidal violence of the Civil War. North Carolina seceded from the Union soon after Confederate forces attacked federal troops at Fort Sumter, S.C. on April 12, 1861.

Confederate records show Pvt. Triplett joined the 53rd North Carolina Infantry Regiment in May 1862. He spent half of that enlistment hospitalized, though records aren't clear whether for illness or a gunshot wound to the shoulder that he suffered at some point during the war.

In January 1863, Pvt. Triplett transferred to the 26th North Carolina Infantry Regiment. The regiment's farmers, tradesmen and mountain men were commanded by 20-year-old Col. Henry Burgwyn, Jr. a strict drillmaster educated at the Virginia Military Institute, according to David McGee's regimental history. Earlier, in 1859, Col. Burgwyn had been one of the VMI cadets dispatched to provide security at the hanging of John Brown, the famous abolitionist.

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