The Forgotten Families
Grandparents Raising Slain Soldiers' Children Are Denied A Government Benefit Intended to Sustain the Bereaved

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."

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.

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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