At first blush, today's Washington Post paints a disturbing picture of a loophole in survivor benefits for military members who die in the line of duty. The paper profiles at least three families struggling to survive because the military's $100,000 death gratuity cannot be paid to grandparents (and other family members) who are caring for children left behind by the service member.
The Post leads with the case of Navy Petty Officer Jamie Janek, a Naval Reservist from Iowa who was killed last year by a roadside bomb in Iraq. Before her last deployment, Petty Officer Janek directed that the death gratuity be given to her parents, apparently unaware that (by law) the benefit goes first to a surviving spouse or child. Petty Officer Janek's nine-year-old daughter will collect the death benefit (along with $400,000 in Servicemen's Group Life Insurance) when she turns 18. In the interim, her parents are laboring to meet their granddaughter's needs with limited resources. Post reporter Donna St. George offers similar tales from California and Missouri, where children from previous relationships--and their guardians--have been left without benefits.
But is this a genuine example of a cold and heartless bureaucracy with inflexible rules, or the result of hasty financial planning by military members, and inadequate advice from benefits counselors? Having worn the uniform for more than twenty years, I'd say the problem lies less with the "system," and more with military personnel who don't fully consider the long-term consequences of what might happen if they die, and who should receive their benefits.
Let me make one thing clear up front: this post is not intended as a criticism of Petty Officer Janek or the other service members listed in the Post story. All are heroes in my book, patriots who gave the last, full measure of devotion to their country. Their survivors should receive every benefit they're entitled to.
But, having been a young airman and NCO myself, I also understand that benefits decisions are sometimes made in haste--and without considering the consequences of those decisions. During my younger days, I processed through more than a few mobility lines, where service members were allowed to review (or revised) benefit information, or complete a power of attorney before deployment, all in a matter of a few minutes. It was a useful process; representatives from the JAG and personnel offices who manned the benefits and legal processing stations were always amazed at the number of personnel who were prepared to ship out--without designating survivor benefits, or granting a power of attorney to manage their affairs.
For me, stops at the JAG and benefits stations on the mobility line were usually brief, because I tried my legal and benefits documents up-to-date. But, like other service members, I never really considered some of the technical details of my benefits, and the potential impact on my estate. For example, while Mrs. Spook and I had detailed plans for the care of our children in the event that both of us died, I didn't realize that my military death gratuity wasn't payable to the designated guardians. I'm not sure if that particular fact was covered in various benefit briefings I attended down through the years, but even if it wasn't, shame on me. I should have paid more attention to something so potentially important. Luckily for me, it never became an issue.
Likewise, I believe that military personnel have an obligation to provide for all of their children. Unfortunately, there are a few service members who are willing to ignore offspring from previous marriages or relationships, because of hostile relations with the child's mother or father, or they simply don't want the added financial responsibility. I don't believe that was the case in examples cited by the Post, but it does highlight the need for the military to educate its personnel on the fine points of their benefits--and the requirement for service members to do the necessary legal and financial planning before they deploy.
Meanwhile, Congress can also play a helpful role by changing the rules on military death gratuities. Petty Officer Janek clearly wanted her parents to receive that benefit, but current laws prohibit it. Making that change would do more for the troops than passing meaningless resolutions on the War in Iraq.