The Forgotten Families

Kayla Jaenke's mother, Jaime, was killed in Iraq last June. The Navy medic wanted a death benefit to go to her parents, but it cannot.
Kayla Jaenke's mother, Jaime, was killed in Iraq last June. The Navy medic wanted a death benefit to go to her parents, but it cannot. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 16, 2007

Her daughter was killed by a bomb in Iraq. Eight months later, Susan Jaenke is both grief-stricken and strapped -- behind on her mortgage, backed up on her bills and shut out of the $100,000 government death benefit that her daughter thought she had left her.

The problem is that Jaenke is not a wife, not a husband, but instead grandmother to the 9-year-old her daughter left behind. "Grandparents," she said, "are forgotten in this."

For the Jaenkes and others like them, the toll of war can be especially complex: They face not only the anguish of losing a son or daughter but also the emotional, legal and financial difficulties of putting the pieces back together for a grandchild.

They confront this without the $100,000 "death gratuity" that military spouses ordinarily get -- a payment intended to ease the financial strain as families await government survivors' benefits.

"It really does get complicated for them," said Joyce Raezer of the National Military Family Association. The load of responsibilities placed on that generation -- both during deployment and if a service member is injured or killed -- "is a huge issue."

The case of Petty Officer 2nd Class Jaime S. Jaenke, a Navy construction-battalion medic killed last June in Anbar province, is particularly striking because she was a single parent who clearly meant to assign her mother the benefit. Jaenke, 29, filled in her mother's name on a form and carefully spelled out her wishes in a letter.

But by law, the $100,000 benefit goes first to a spouse or a child. So 9-year-old Kayla Jaenke collects the $100,000 -- plus $400,000 in life insurance -- after she turns 18, leaving Susan Jaenke to ask, "What about the next nine years?"

In some other families, the $100,000 death benefit has gone to neither the children nor the grandparents who are raising them.

In California, Barbie and Matt Heavrin are caring for a 2-year-old grandson without the death gratuity or life insurance. Their daughter, Pfc. Hannah McKinney, assigned her $400,000 in life insurance to the man she wed just before deployment, her father said; by law, her husband also received the gratuity.

The Heavrins are happy to raise the boy -- from an earlier relationship their daughter had -- but wonder why he would get nothing. Five months after their daughter died last September, their only assistance is monthly benefits they expect will total about $800, most of which goes to day care.

In Missouri, grandmother Gail Kriete is raising 9-year-old Taylor Purdy, the child of Lance Cpl. Erik R. Heldt, a Marine killed in Iraq in June 2005. His wife collected the full $500,000. Kriete said none went to his daughter, from a previous relationship.

"It just needs to be thought out a little more carefully," Kriete said. "There are so many blended families that the suffering is very spread out."

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company