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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)

For the Jaenkes, the trouble was not that raising Kayla is so expensive but that their entire financial picture shifted with Jaime's death. Jaime's checks immediately stopped. Larry Jaenke was out of work for a time. The family paid $2,800 for a handsome headstone. The stable was still losing money.

Last fall, Susan Jaenke watched as Jaime's pickup truck, and then her car, were repossessed.

The family scraped by, thanks to acts of kindness, Susan Jaenke said. When the Jaenkes' dryer broke, nearby Seabee units stepped up to replace it. The Seabees have come three times to do finishing work on the stable, which Susan Jaenke says she will not give up. Kayla is there all the time, she said, and giving it up would be like losing what is left of Jaime.

The local Veterans of Foreign Wars gave the family a $1,000 Target gift card, which she said made the family's Christmas.

Since October, the Jaenke family has been collecting monthly government benefits for Kayla's care -- $1,700 in all -- but not enough to replace Jaime's contributions. From Iraq, she had been sending home $3,200 a month, her mother said. The child's father, long estranged, does not pay child support, Susan Jaenke said.

The Jaenkes can request money from Kayla's trust for certain expenses related to the girl's "health, education, maintenance and welfare," but the process involves lawyers and court appearances. The court recently agreed to a $200 monthly stipend for the family.

"The court is just very conservative here in Iowa," said Mona Bowden, an attorney for the Jaenkes.

Clear Wishes, Clear Rules

Every now and then, Susan Jaenke rereads the letter that Jaime left behind for her:

"I have got all my paperwork done and here is what I did. My big policy [$400,000] goes to Kayla. That has to be put away for when she gets 18. You will know what to do and how to handle it. 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 goes to the barn. . . . I can't wait to get home to my girl and my horses, so you had better take care of them all."

Patrick J. Palmersheim, executive director of the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs, explained that the problem came down to the fine print on death gratuities. Jaime had written in her mother's name as beneficiary, but in the same blank the form said "No spouse or child surviving."

Susan Jaenke could be awarded the benefit only if there were no spouse or child to receive it.

The tight regulations are meant to guard against fraud and abuse, said Chief Petty Officer Randy Erdman, the Navy casualty assistance officer who has worked closely with the Jaenke family. "I see the need for the money going to the right spot and being protected," he said, "but at the same time I see what the family needs."

In Washington, Lt. Tommy Crosby, a Navy spokesman, said the Navy "recognizes the significant loss the family has suffered" and has done all it can, within the law, to help.

The death gratuity, created in 1908, originally was equal to six months' pay and was intended to ease financial burdens after a military death.

During the war in Iraq, the gratuity was increased markedly; it had been at $6,000, then grew to $12,000 and finally $100,000. Lawmakers had said the original award seemed offensively low, especially in contrast to the large settlements awarded to families of those killed in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Still, there was little rethinking about beneficiaries for the $100,000 gratuity, several experts said. To troops, the large lump sum came to resemble life insurance, said Raezer, chief operating officer of the National Military Family Association.

Jaime's handwritten letter and possibly her form suggest she did not realize the gratuity could not go to her mother.

Whether that is because she misunderstood what was said during a benefits briefing or was not advised well is unclear. "They don't always get that kind of counseling that they need," Raezer said.

The problem could have been avoided altogether if Jaime had directed part of her life insurance money, rather than the death gratuity, to her parents.

Steve Strobridge, government relations director of the Military Officers Association of America, said Jaenke's case suggests that the regulations should be reexamined.

"We certainly need to look at whether there needs to be some additional flexibility in who the member can assign the death gratuity to and whether we need to adjust the counseling requirements to help protect people from unintended consequences," he said.

In her three-bedroom house in Iowa, Susan Jaenke said she has been reduced to worrying about grocery money and dreading calls from creditors. "It just hurts bad in so many different directions," she said. "My girl was supposed to come back."

Some days, the whole episode overwhelms her. Three of her four children have served in the Navy, and she said she considers herself "a flag waver." But she gets angry that her daughter's wishes are not being honored and that the family now struggles.

"It's not bad enough that I lost my daughter," she said. "What else do they want me to lose?"

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