Investigations Can Be A Barrier For Gold Star Spouses Waiting For Benefits

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As ordinary citizens, we assume that when a serviceman dies, the families of the deceased are well taken care of by the government. Of course, there are rights and benefits to help military families put the pieces back together, but what happens when those benefits are tied to paperwork, a bureaucratic process called a line of work investigation, which can take more than a year?

A LOD survey defined by the army:

“A soldier who becomes ill or injured during active service or during an excused absence is entitled to certain benefits, including pay and allowances, if the soldier’s injuries or illness are not the result of willful misconduct. or willful negligence on the part of the soldier. A service line survey is the process for determining whether the soldier’s intentional misconduct or willful neglect was the immediate cause of the illness or injury. An investigation into the performance of his duties will also be carried out in the event of the death of a soldier. “

In early 2020, while working in a congressional district office, I was approached by a constituent named Heather Piedrahita. Heather has come to our office to seek help with the criminal investigation and LOD into the death of her husband, Steven Piedrahita. Steven committed suicide following untreated service-related PTSD in April 2019, while receiving treatment at a U.S. Navy facility for his suicidal ideation.

Heather collected Military Group Life Insurance and Military Death Benefit from the Department of Defense within days of Steven’s death. She waited patiently while the Navy Criminal Investigation Service and Command conducted their criminal and LOD investigations. The representatives maintained proper communication with her for a while, but that communication eventually started to fade. Once communication started to wane, Heather decided to let go of the idea of ​​”not being a difficult wife” – a perception that spouses often fear – and began to advocate for her rights and those of her parents. children. A year after Steven’s death, she was still waiting for her spousal benefit plan, a designated compensation package and access to her spouse’s belongings, but most importantly her ability to move forward.

When Heather came to our office to conduct a congressional investigation, she was very frank and said to me, “I’m not trying to be callous, but we know what he did, he was there to. receive treatment for his illness, which he eventually succumbed to. . “Our office did what we could to contact different agencies and although these agencies were sympathetic to the situation, they were bound by politics. They too seemed bewildered that there was nothing they could do to help the Piedrahita family – or other families in similar situations The best the Congressional office could do was ask investigators to resume periodic communications and allow Heather access to her spouse’s property.

Heather and I recently logged on to discuss this article. She appreciates her story being shared and would love to see changes for the Gold Star families regarding the LOD investigations. She told me they were financial savvy and it was never really about the money. Instead, it was as if she had been sidelined at a time when she deserved communication and closure. Heather often thought of spouses who were too afraid to let go of the notion of “don’t be a picky eater” to express themselves. Heather understands why policies and procedures are in place, however, when the cause of death, especially under expert medical supervision, is fairly obvious – why would it take 18 months to complete an investigation?

Heather Piedrahita is not alone in her story. There are other spouses who have encountered the same obstacles with their SBP and DIC payments. Theresa Jones, a Gold Star wife and lawyer, contacted me periodically with similar stories. One story involved a woman named Katie Walker, whose wife Lt. Cmdr. Charles walker was the Vigilantes training officer for Strike Fighter Squadron 151 based in Lemoore, California. In July 2019, during one of his training missions through a low altitude flight path known as the Star Wars Canyon, his Super Hornet collided with the canyon wall. When I spoke to Katie about her experience with the LOD investigation process, she informed me that she had had numerous conversations with her casualty assistance call manager about the delay in receiving her SBP and DIC payments. The CACO never mentioned a determination of LOD as a requirement for SBP or DIC. The final determination of the LOD was completed in January 2020. His comments to me were the same as the others: “Why would an investigation like this take so long? He was in his uniform, piloted his plane, on a training mission, he was obviously in the performance of his duties.

So what can we do? To begin with, greater awareness needs to be brought to these issues. Families should have more opportunities to come forward, to share these stories and to have the tools to be able to stand up for themselves. Second, there must be due process for cases where it is evident that the member has died in the line of duty. Another option could be an exemption for families needing immediate access to certain benefits. Make no mistake – investigations are necessary to identify wrongdoing or wrongdoing, but when it is evident that a serviceman has been killed in the line of duty and we need to assume a positive intention, he does not. there is no reason to put the Gold Star families in undue hardship. .

Originally from Houston, TX, Karla Langham is a Program Manager at the United States Chamber of Commerce Foundation Hire our heroes initiative. Prior to working at Hiring our Heroes, she was a Field Representative and Social Worker for the 51st Congressional District of California. She holds a BA from the University of Houston and a Graduate Diploma from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. She is a military spouse and an advocate for military families.

Editor’s Note: This is an editorial and as such the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond or would like to submit your own editorial, please contact Military Times Senior Editor Howard Altman, [email protected].


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