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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)

The death gratuity, more than many other benefits, adheres to a strict next-of-kin rule, which Pentagon officials say makes it possible to pay out the $100,000 within a few days. They say that, in the "vast majority of cases," spouses are most in need when paychecks stop.

But there have been thousands of single parents deployed into combat zones since 2001. How many have died at war is unclear, but the Jaenke case shows that, in those cases, the benefit may be at odds with its original intent: to help the grieving family stay afloat when a service member's income suddenly stops.

Susan Jaenke said her family fell behind shortly after Jaime died -- and has never caught up.

Larry Jaenke is a truck driver, and Susan worked as a letter carrier for 23 years until an accident left her disabled. Their daughter Jaime and granddaughter Kayla lived with them. Susan provided child care when Jaime worked, and Jaime contributed to the family income.

Jaime's passion for horses led the Jaenkes to start a business with her on their 10-acre Iowa property. When Susan Jaenke got an insurance settlement from her accident, she put much of it toward building a horse stable on the property, which was Jaime's dream. Jaime -- energetic and skilled with power tools -- did the drywall and flooring.

Not long afterward, Jaime -- a reservist who was an emergency medical technician in her civilian life -- went to war.

Unable to Make Ends Meet

It was a June afternoon last year, and the Jaenkes were returning from Kayla's softball game. She had made her team's only hit -- and her first hit ever. In a celebratory mood, they stopped to buy ice cream.

When they pulled into their driveway, the scene was one that no parent of a deployed soldier wants to see: two uniformed Navy men, waiting.

They soon learned that a roadside bomb had exploded near Jaime's Humvee, killing her and a fellow Seabee.

At the funeral, Kayla stood solemn next to her mother's flag-draped casket, the folded flag laid into her small arms.

Then came the dawning of the family's new reality -- the emotional, the practical, the financial.

There was a lawyer to hire to get legal guardianship. There were survivors' benefits to apply for. There was a trust to set up. There was health insurance to obtain for Kayla. Inexplicably, there was no official will left behind.


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