Got their due only in death

On the sweltering day of the big rally in Times Square, Katrina Marino stood among the cops and firefighters holding a sign. "I TAKE HOME WHAT MY HUSBAND SHOULD HAVE MADE WHEN HE WAS ALIVE."

As the union leaders and politicians up on the stage called for New York's Finest and Bravest to get the pay raise they unquestionably deserve, Marino quietly distributed a leaflet that began with a question.

"Why is he worth more dead than alive?"

The single sheet went on:

"My husband, New York City Firefighter Kenneth J. Marino of Rescue 1, was killed on September 11th fighting a fire for his country. As Kenny's widow ... I receive his pension free of taxes and work-related deductions at an amount double what Kenny brought home while he was alive, risking his life every day at work."

She understood the money was intended to ease the financial demands of raising her two children on her own. She still could not help but feel a cruel irony in her family being able to escape constant money pressures only after her husband was killed.

"While Kenny was alive, we struggled on his firefighter's pay," the leaflet continued. "So, in addition to working as a New York City firefighter, Kenny also juggled two or three side jobs at any given time to support us and our two young children, Kristin, 4 and Tyler, 2. This allowed me to stay home and raise our children."

A paycheck closer to what he received only in death would have allowed him to stay home more himself. He would not have been forced to trade precious time with his wife and kids for a few dollars.

"He should have been able to enjoy his life and his family a little more instead of also having to moonlight as a D.J., bus driver and construction worker to make ends meet."

The leaflet allowed that New York is itself experiencing money pressures. The leaflet then suggested a way to augment whatever pay raise firefighters and cops might receive. Her notion was to exempt them from city and state taxes while they are still alive.

"Similar to how members of the U.S. armed forces are exempt from federal taxes while in a war zone."

Members of the armed forces do indeed receive tax exemptions while serving in a combat zone. And, in what seems to have been his first and only tax initiative that did not primarily favor the rich, President Bush ensured that this applied to the present conflict by signing Executive Order 13239 back on Dec. 12:

"Pursuant to the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and laws of the United States, including section 112 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (26 U.S.C. 112), I designate, for purposes of that section, Afghanistan, including the airspace above, as an area in which Armed Forces of the United States are said to have been engaged in combat."

The President added:

"For purposes of this order, I designate September 19, 2001, as the date of the commencement of combatant activities in such zone."

As Bush himself noted when he visited Ground Zero, the war commenced in downtown Manhattan eight days before.

"This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others," Bush said. "It will end in a way and at an hour of our choosing."

The conflict did not seem even close to an end as pretty, dark-haired Katrina Marino handed out her flyer amid the cops and firefighters a week ago Thursday.

"Though Kenny is still providing for his family, the money that is keeping us clothed, fed, housed and comfortable is sad money. We would have been better served if this money came when Kenny was alive and able to enjoy a more fulfilling life with his family. My children and I miss, want and need Kenny back. No amount of money will compensate for the fact that Kenny was killed in the line of duty at age 40, robbing him of his life and leaving his children without him. Kristin and Tyler were his pride and joy, and what he lived and died for."

She carried with her a photo of her husband walking down the boardwalk at Long Beach holding Tyler's hand. She also had a picture of her husband in front of a fire rig, Tyler in his left arm, Kristin in the right. She has no snapshots in all the moments they missed because he was moonlighting.

United in purpose

Now that there can be no new snapshots of her husband at all, she gets her tax-free check every two weeks. She was not at the rally for herself. She was there for her husband's comrades, the firefighters and cops our President likes to call "first responders."

"I am not a union or a corporation or a politician. I have no direct power to make changes in these men's lives, but I do know how they struggle daily with the loss of their brothers while dealing with the realization of how much tragedy, loss and risk they are carrying with them every time they go to work. Knowing that at any time they might not return to the wife and children they love."

Her flyer ended as it began, with a question.

"Why are these men worth so much more dead than alive?"