Friday, February 16, 2007

The Forgotten Families

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.


Mike H. said...

I understand what you're saying, but there ought to be a fudge factor designed into the benefits packages as written in congress to cover hardship cases. I also agree with your point about all dependents.

Gordon Freece said...

Analogies are very often a snare and a delusion, but I think this one may hold: In designing software, it's generally true that if the user's unaware of a feature that he'd like to use, or if he can't figure out how to use it, the fault usually lies with the designer who made the feature hard to find or hard to figure out. Bear in mind that some features are just weird, so that it can be very difficult to present them in a way that's clear to the user. And some users are just dumbasses; there's no way around that. You can't make everything easy for everybody, because there are some people for whom nothing will ever be easy, and others for whom "easy" doesn't mean what it does for the rest of us.

In addition, no design ever survives contact with end users, no matter how much usability testing you do before release. It takes a few releases and a lot of feedback from annoyed users to get an interface right. We've all heard the story of the college where instead of paving paths between the buildings, they just planted grass everywhere. At the end of the first year, they paved the places where the grass was worn away. That approach doesn't translate to software, unfortunately.

There's yet another problem with this benefits thing, which is that anything to do with human resources or benefits is boring beyond the power of language to describe, so it's hard to engage people with it under any circumstances. Especially people who are on their way to a war.

But, to wind up the analogy: From what you describe, I wonder if you should be so quick to say that the system is okay but the users are broken. The system exists to serve the users. If the system doesn't work the way the users do, which is easier to change: Military regulations or human nature? (Do I really want to hear the answer to that question?)

Given the nature of the material they're trying to get across to people, the system may in fact be working as well as any system could, but few systems (particularly those in government agencies, and the immensely large ones most of all) are as good as they can be.

I wonder about this part, for example: (or revise) benefit information, or complete a power of attorney before deployment, all in a matter of a few minutes

How few? Never having served, I have no idea how few, nor what other demands are being made on their time nor what the priorities are: Obviously it's a net loss if they spend so much time preparing to die that they're inadequately prepared to kill the other guy and survive[1].

[1] Of course, few WaPo writers can comprehend the idea of surviving by winning rather than by hiding under a hillock of body armor and revising your will all day.