Monday, June 11, 2007

Military Death Benefits: Bureaucratic Casualty of War

Well before Navy reservist Jaime Jaenka, a single parent, was killed by a roadside bomb last June in Iraq, she had made it clear whom she wanted to be her beneficiary. In a letter written to her mother, Susan Jaenka of Iowa Falls, Jaenka wrote:

“There is a smaller policy that goes to you that is for 100.000. That is for you to raise Kayla with and 25,000 of that goes to the barn.”
To help assure these wishes, Jaenka designated her mother the beneficiary of the death benefit on her official paperwork. Unfortunately, federal law only allows a spouse or child to be named the beneficiary, and the money for the latter is to be kept in a trust until the beneficiary turns 18. “I saw the paperwork. Jaime had put her mom’s name in the beneficiary box, but in the fine print it says that only a spouse or child may be listed as a beneficiary,” said Patrick Palmersheim, executive director of the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs.

Since Jaime Jaenke’s death, her parents have been left with the task of raising her 10-year-old daughter, Kayla, without any additional income. Jaime’s military paychecks were not only used to help cover Kayla’s living expenses, but also were used to help her struggling family make ends meet. Susan Jaenka took her case to Washington, D.C., and told a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee that the loss of income had imposed an economic hardship on the Jaenke family.

On behalf of all the Iowa Congressional delegation, Rep. Tom Latham introduced a bill (H.R. 1115 ) in February that would amend the United States Code. It would provide additional options regarding the designation of the death gratuity paid to members of the Armed Forces who die without a surviving spouse but are survived by a minor child. As of now, there are 142 cases similar to Jaime Jaenke’s. Latham included a “look back” provision in the bill, “Treatment of Earlier Deaths and Death Gratuity Payments,” which would cover members who “left a clear expression of intent regarding payment of the death gratuity to another person on behalf of the surviving child or children.” Based on the letter to her mother and the original paperwork, Latham’s staff and Palmersheim agree that the Jaenkes have a solid case proving her intent. But this remains a moot point until the law is amended.

To help speed up the bureaucratic process, Latham attempted to add the bill as an amendment to a Defense Authorization Act, but the amendment died in the House Rules Committee, where members last week voted along party lines to reject the amendment 9-4 along with a number of others. Latham’s press secretary, James Christiansen, said he has no idea why the amendment died in committee, given that it seemed bipartisan and neutral in nature. “You’ll have to ask the Democrat majority of the Rules Committee, who unanimously voted against the amendment. Did they see the big ‘R’ behind Latham’s name and dismiss the nonpartisan amendment? This committee has a lot of power in deciding what amendments move on to the House floor.”

Despite the setback, Latham and his staff are optimistic about the bill and intend to move forward on behalf of their constituents, the Jaenke family. “The amendment may be dead, but the bill is still alive,” said Christiansen. “We’ve been working with the House Majority Leader, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who is trying to help push the bill into law, and we’ve received support in the Senate by members who plan on introducing a similar bill.”

Until then, the Jaenkes are left in the balance, where they are left waiting for the political process to take its course. For now, single parents currently serving active duty in the Armed Forces have only two options regarding their death benefit gratuity, and cases like the Jaenkes are bound to happen again. “The problem will continue unless it is fixed,” said Palmersheim.

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