The Washington Post

Widow of Marine who committed suicide to receive life insurance claim

Danelle Hackett, 46, holds a Christmas ornament with a photo of her late husband, Maj. Jeffrey Hackett, at her home in Bethany, W.Va., on Feb. 3. Mrs. Hackett had the ornament made in remembrance of her husband of 22 years on the first Christmas after his death. The inscription reads, “1st Christmas, Jeff, 28 June 1964 - 5 June 2010, Love You.” (Joe Appel/For The Washington Post)

The Department of Veterans Affairs has reversed its decision to deny a life insurance claim to a Marine who committed suicide in 2010 following a long and largely hidden struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Marine Maj. Jeff Hackett was the subject of a front-page story last month in The Washington Post that chronicled his troubles and the VA’s decision to deny the $400,000 claim to his widow and four sons.

During his 26 years of active-duty service, Hackett had paid premiums on his life insurance policy through Prudential Financial. But after he left the military in 2008, he stopped making the payments, allowing the policy to lapse.

His widow and other advocates, including John Dowd, a prominent Washington lawyer enlisted to help in the family’s cause, contended that Hackett was struggling with mental illness and therefore a casualty of war deserving of federal assistance.

The case hinged on the extent of Hackett’s disability at the time of his discharge from the Marines. A provision in the federal law allows troops who are “totally disabled” to receive exemptions from paying their life insurance premium for as long as three years after leaving the military. The VA had ruled that Hackett had been gainfully employed at an oil refinery, meaning he was not totally disabled.

This week, however, the VA informed Dowd of its decision in a letter, saying that it had reviewed supplemental information in the case and concluded that “Major Jeffrey C. Hackett was totally disabled from February 29, 2008 until June 5, 2010.”

The decision means that Hackett’s wife, Danelle Hackett, will now receive the claim.

“VA has examined the evidence thoroughly and thoughtfully — in accordance with all appropriate laws and regulations, including the resolution of any reasonable doubt in the claimant’s favor — to reach this decision,” the agency said in a statement. “While we can never fully repay Major Hackett and his family for their service and sacrifice, our hope is that this resolution will provide some measure of peace and comfort.”

In an interview, Danelle Hackett said she was overwhelmed by the news, and grateful that the VA was able to “actually look at a problem and try to fix it.”

“I’m hoping our case will help someone else out there who has gone through the VA system . . . to let them know there’s hope,” she said.

Dowd, a former Marine, and a team of lawyers from the Akin Gump law firm spent more than two years advocating on behalf of the Hackett family after being contacted by Gen. James Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, who had learned of Hackett’s case.

The lawyers recently interviewed some of Hackett’s fellow employees at the oil refinery where he worked after leaving the Marines and convinced the VA that he was a “sheltered employee” who struggled because of his mental illness but was protected by his fellow employees. The additional supplemental evidence convinced the VA that Hackett was “totally disabled” and that therefore his widow was eligible for the insurance payment.

After the VA’s decision, Amos e-mailed Dowd and his team:  “Congratulations . . . and on behalf of all Marines and their families . . . THANK YOU!!!”

Staff writer Steve Vogel contributed to this report.

Greg Jaffe covers the White House for The Washington Post, where he has been since March 2009.



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