"Helping Those Left Behind: Are We Doing Enough for the Parents, Spouses and Children of Veterans?".
"HELPING THOSE LEFT BEHIND: ARE WE DOING ENOUGH FOR THE PARENTS, SPOUSES, AND CHILDREN OF VETERANS?"
SUBCOMMITTEE ON DISABILITY ASSISTANCE AND MEMORIAL AFFAIRS
COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
ONE HUNDRED TENTH CONGRESS
APRIL 24, 2007
Printed for the use of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs
SERIAL No. 110-16
U.S. GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE
For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office
CORRINE BROWN, Florida
STEVE BUYER, Indiana, Ranking
Malcom A. Shorter, Staff Director
SUBCOMMITTEE ON DISABILITY ASSISTANCE AND MEMORIAL AFFAIRS
Pursuant to clause 2(e)(4) of Rule XI of the Rules of the House, public hearing records of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs are also published in electronic form. The printed hearing record remains the official version. Because electronic submissions are used to prepare both printed and electronic versions of the hearing record, the process of converting between various electronic formats may introduce unintentional errors or omissions. Such occurrences are inherent in the current publication process and should diminish as the process is further refined.
C O N T E N T S
April 24, 2007
"Helping Those Left Behind: Are We Doing Enough for the Parents, Spouses, and Children of Veterans?"
Clark, Amy, Bartow, FL
Prepared statement of Mrs. Clark
Ellsworth, Hon. Brad, a Representative in Congress from the State of Indiana,
presenting the statement of Ron Nesler, New Harmony, IN
Gold Star Wives of America, Inc., Rose Elizabeth Lee, Chair, Government Relations Committee
Prepared statement of Ms. Lee
Hazelgrove, Kimberly Dawn, Lorton, VA, and Member, Gold Star Wives of America, Inc.
Prepared statement of Mrs. Hazelgrove
Heavrin, Matthew B., Redlands, CA
Prepared statement of Mr. Heavrin
Jaenke, Susan, Iowa Falls, IA
Prepared statement of Ms. Jaenke
Latham, Hon. Tom, a Representative in Congress from the State of Iowa
Prepared statement of Congressman Latham
National Military Families Association, Patricia Montes Barron, Deputy Director of Government Relations
Prepared statement of Ms. Barron
National Veterans Legal Services Program, Christine Cote, Staff Attorney
Prepared statement of Ms. Cote
Nesler, Ron, New Harmony, IN, as presented by Hon. Brad Ellsworth, a Representative
in Congress from the State of Indiana
Prepared statement of Mr. Nesler
SUBMISSIONS FOR THE RECORD
American Legion, Peter S. Gaytan, Director, Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission, statement
Ortiz, Hon. Solomon P., a Representative in Congress from the State of Texas, statement
Piestewa, Priscilla, Flagstaff, AZ, statement
MATERIAL SUBMITTED FOR THE RECORD
"HELPING THOSE LEFT BEHIND: ARE WE DOING ENOUGH FOR THE PARENTS, SPOUSES, AND CHILDREN OF VETERANS?"
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
U. S. House of Representatives,
Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs,
Committee on Veterans' Affairs,
The Subcommittee met, pursuant to notice, at 10:06 a.m., in Room 334, Cannon House Office Building, Hon. John Hall [Chairman of the Subcommittee] presiding.
Present: Representatives Hall, Lamborn, Rodriguez, Hare, Berkley, Turner, Bilirakis
Mr. HALL. And the Subcommittee will proceed with the hearing on helping those left behind, are we doing enough for parents, spouses, and children of veterans.
And our first panel will be the Honorable Brad Ellsworth and the Honorable Tom Latham, who will both present testimony on behalf of their constituents.
Let me just say before we go to our witnesses that I am pleased so many of you could attend this oversight hearing on this most important topic.
I would like to call attention to the fact that several individuals interested in today's hearing have asked to submit a written statement for the record.
If there is no objection, I ask for unanimous consent that those statements which have been submitted by the following be allowed to be inserted for the record and those requesting to insert statements are the Honorable Solomon P. Ortiz from Texas; Mr. Peter S. Gaytan, Director of the Veterans Affairs Rehabilitation Commission of the American Legion; and Ms. Priscilla Piestewa, I hope I am pronouncing that correctly, mother of Lori Piestewa, the first female casualty in Operating Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom (OIF/OEF).
Hearing no objections, so entered.
[The statements submitted for the record appear in the Submissions for the Record in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. As the title suggests, I would like this hearing to examine how effective our government has been in assisting the families of our veterans.
I have noticed on several occasions that when we begin a discussion about taking care of veterans, we sometimes bypass or overlook the veterans' families. And when we do get around to the veteran's families, we are apt to apply a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach.
For example, we assume that the veteran is a male and that the children live with both biological parents. However, this is not always the case. The current military is made up of many so-called mixed or blended families in which children do not necessarily live with one or both of their biological parents.
Furthermore, the population of women serving in the military continues to grow. More than 160,000 women have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. As of February 2007, over 143 single parents have died in Iraq and the majority were women.
As a result, we are witnessing a new phenomenon of grandparents raising grandchildren that have been orphaned due to the Iraq War. We will hear from some of those grandparents today.
I also hope that today's hearing will allow the Subcommittee to look at how we can better assist those whose spouses have died on active duty. One recurring theme that I have heard on this topic is the difficulty in navigating the bureaucratic maze immediately after that servicemember's death.
And I want to say at the outset that this is no critique of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) because I think they try to be helpful, but the nature of the dual system in which both the VA and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) provide benefits makes it very hard for an individual who has just lost a loved one.
I would be interested in learning more about the proposed idea to create an Office of Survivors which combines VA and DoD resources in one location.
In addition, I am concerned about those veterans who are facing a terminal condition and/or who die before the completion of their benefits claim. This is of great importance to the families of veterans, especially those of the Vietnam era who in many instances get overlooked because of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I would like to know the current law with respect to an individual who files a claim but dies before the claim is fully adjudicated. Can the spouse or the children of that individual continue the claim. In the 108th Congress, legislation was introduced to permit such action. I am curious if such legislation is still necessary.
I am also interested in learning more about possible fixes to Survivor Benefit Plans (SBPs) and Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC), so spouses stop getting the short end of the stick.
In closing, I would just like to say that when we speak about our veterans, we must always remember to include their families.
And now I will yield to Ranking Member Lamborn for an opening statement.
[The statement of Mr. Hall appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. LAMBORN. Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for recognizing me and for holding his hearing.
We are here today to discuss how we can best care for the family members of our veterans. The emotional demands that descend onto their loved ones are immense and we have a sacred responsibility to help them bear that burden.
In reading the witnesses' testimony, I have learned about a number of issues that are facing survivors and the failings of DoD and VA in this area.
I was especially troubled by the situation that the Heavrin family has described in their testimony. Their daughter, Hannah, lost her life in Iraq. Because of the way her servicemember's group life insurance and indemnity compensation policies were written, her husband became the sole beneficiary. However, a son she has from a previous relationship receives nothing. Even worse, her current husband apparently has done nothing to help support the child.
It is now up the Heavrin family to raise their grandchild and find the money to do so. I am not sure what course of action should be undertaken in this situation, but I suspect that something can and should be done to reduce the possibility that this happens to any other family.
I am also very interested in the concerns of the Gold Star Wives and the National Military Family Association. Sitting here with these deserving families about to speak to us, I must note that this session we have heard promises to provide billions of dollars to valiant Merchant Marine and Filipino veterans of World War II. We have also noted dozens of other deserving veterans of that war such as the Woman Air Force Service pilots.
These families have made great sacrifices for our freedom. It is my hope that as we consider compensation and other legislation, these families here today will also be accorded due consideration.
I would like to thank the witnesses for their testimony. I know many of you have traveled from far away to come educate us on this issue, and I thank you. Thank you especially for your sacrifice and your fidelity to our Nation.
Mr. Chairman, I yield back.
[The statement of Mr. Lamborn appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Mr. Lamborn.
Our first panel, Mr. Ellsworth and Mr. Latham, thank you for being here. And, Mr. Ellsworth, I will now recognize you for your statement.
STATEMENTS OF HON. BRAD ELLSWORTH, A REPRESENTATIVE IN CONGRESS FROM THE STATE OF INDIANA, PRESENTING STATEMENT OF RON NESLER, NEW HARMONY, IN (CAREGIVER OF ADULT DEPENDENT); AND HON. TOM LATHAM, A REPRESENTATIVE IN CONGRESS FROM THE STATE OF IOWA
Mr. ELLSWORTH. Thank you, Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Lamborn, the rest of the Subcommittee. I appreciate you holding this important hearing on all the aspects that you will hear about today.
I would like to thank you on behalf of my constituent, Honey Sue Newby, and the Nesler family of New Harmony, Indiana. Today I will read a heartfelt testimony prepared by Honey Sue's stepfather, Ron Nesler.
Mr. Nesler has detailed his family's daily struggle to provide care for Honey Sue as a complicated neurological disorder rooted in spina bifida.
Honey Sue and the Neslers were invited to testify before your Committee today, but were unable to travel due to her condition and the constant care that she needs. And in the interest of time, I will read portions of his letter to the Committee, and I have submitted that for the record.
And this is a quote from Mr. Nesler. I am Honey Sue Newby's stepfather, Ron Nesler. My wife, Suzanne Nesler, is Honey Sue's birth mother. Suzanne and I are Honey Sue's court-appointed guardians and full-time caregivers.
Honey Sue is a beautiful 36-year-old child with complicated neurological disorders rooted in spina bifida. She requires around-the-clock aid and attendance care and extensive medical care.
The VA concedes that Honey Sue's condition is the result of her birth father's exposure to Agent Orange while serving three separate 13-month tours in combat as a Marine rifleman in the Vietnam War.
Honey Sue is very bright, happy, gregarious, but emotionally she operates at the 10- to 12-year-old level and always will. She is the greatest joy in our lives and we are grateful for the opportunity to care for her.
When the VA's spina bifida program was started, her mother and I applied for VA compensation for Honey Sue. The VA acknowledges about 1,200 children of the Vietnam veterans have some degree of disability caused by spina bifida as related to the birth parents' exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.
The children are rated as Level I through Level III according to their degree of disability with Level III being the greatest degree of disability.
Honey Sue is one of the only two hundred out of the twelve hundred children rated as Level III. We are told by the VA that this is the approximate equivalent of a hundred percent service-connected disability rating for a military veteran themselves.
All 1,200 children are paid monthly monetary compensation by the VA at this time. The amount of the monthly compensation is based on their degree of disability. As a Level III totally disabled Agent Orange spina bifida child, Honey Sue receives about $1,500 per month in VA compensation. A hundred percent disabled military veteran whose situation seems to mirror Honey Sue's situation exactly receives about $2,500 per month.
Honey Sue and the other Level III children receive only scraps of very difficult to access healthcare coverage from the VA. And these bits and pieces of healthcare specifically exclude Honey Sue's greatest need which is aid and attendance care. The disabled veteran receives full medical care including aid and attendance when needed.
Since Congress created the law recognizing the 200 Level III children as totally disabled as a direct result of the birth parents' military service, Congress should ensure full healthcare benefits including aid and attendance care for the children.
Our greatest concern is that who will care for her and protect Honey Sue when her mother and I are gone. We feel the Congress owes a debt to provide full healthcare coverage for the Level III children including aid and attendance care. These children should receive the same care as provided for a hundred percent service-connected disabled veteran, no more and no less.
We think the Congress intended things to be this way when the VA's spina bifida program was created. The government has admitted the total disability of these Level III kids as a result of their parents' military service. They should not have to fight for their medical care.
The financial cost of paying the debt to these children would be very small due to the fact that there are only 200 of them. Ironically we feel the reason that this sad situation is allowed to persist is exactly that, that there are only 200 of the Level III children.
We include with this testimony a legislative memorial passed by New Mexico's State Legislature. The memorial recognizes the plight of the Agent Orange spina bifida children and urges Congress to pay its debt to these children by providing full healthcare coverage and aid and attendance care through the VA's spina bifida program.
We have included the copy of the memorial to demonstrate the others besides our family recognizing the lack of probable healthcare for coverage for the Level III children.
This concludes Mr. Nesler's testimony. I would like to thank the Veterans Affairs' Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for allowing me to testify in front of this group today.
Honey Sue and the Nesler family asked me to thank you also for including their remarks and what you heard today.
Thank you very much.
[The statement of Mr. Nesler appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. I thank the gentleman from Indiana.
And I forgot to mention before to the other members of the Subcommittee that if you have an opening statement, you can have it inserted directly into the record so we get to questions. You need not feel that you have to start from the beginning of your statement.
And now we will move to Congressman Latham.
Mr. LATHAM. Chairman Hall, Ranking Member Lamborn, and members of the Subcommittee, I am honored and privileged to have the opportunity to testify before you today and to introduce two of my constituents who will appear shortly.
And may I inquire, are they going to be testifying immediately after?
Mr. HALL. They will be in the next panel.
Mr. LATHAM. Okay.
Mr. HALL. Would you like to bring them up next to you while you talk about them?
Mr. LATHAM. Yeah.
Mr. HALL. Okay.
Mr. LATHAM. Thank you.
I will proceed while they—
Mr. HALL. Could you introduce them to us, please?
Mr. LATHAM. Sure. Excuse me?
Mr. HALL. Could you introduce them to us? Is this Susan and—
Mr. LATHAM. I will.
Mr. HALL. Okay. Thank you.
Mr. LATHAM. Okay. Thank you.
This is Susan and Kayla Jaenke from Iowa Falls, Iowa.
Mr. Chairman, many of our Nation's servicemembers are single parents who rely upon grandparents or their relatives to care for their children while they are deployed. It has been reported that out of the 3,323 U.S. servicemembers killed in the War on Terror, more than 143 were single parents.
Unfortunately, the families of these soldiers have unintentionally been excluded from important benefits intended to help them.
Under current law, the $100,000 gratuity paid upon a soldier's death must go to any surviving children if there is no surviving spouse. If the surviving children are minors, the money is put into a trust account according to the laws of their State which they cannot access until the age of 18.
This oversight in the original law excludes grandparents or other relatives from access to the benefit of this payment to help raise the servicemember's children even if it was that servicemember's wish.
As we will hear shortly, the Jaenke family from my district knows firsthand the difficulties these restrictions cause.
To address this flaw in the death gratuity benefit, I have introduced House Resolution 1115. If enacted, this legislation would allow servicemembers the option of voluntarily designating a parent, brother, or sister who would have custody of the servicemember's children as the recipient of all or part of the death gratuity.
For deaths occurring before enactment, the bill provides an opening for courts to redistribute death gratuity funds to caretakers if a clear expression of intent regarding the use of the funds was left by the servicemember.
While the situation may not affect a large number of our men and women serving in the Armed Forces, I believe a change in the law is needed as a matter of fairness to our servicemembers who put themselves in harm's way and to their families.
That is why I encourage the Subcommittee to give this issue its full consideration, and I look forward to working with each of you in furthering the cause of our Nation's veterans and their families.
Now I would like to introduce Susan Jaenke from Iowa Falls and her granddaughter, Kayla.
Susan's daughter, Naval Petty Officer, 2nd Class, Jaime Jaenke, served as a Reservist with the Seabees. Tragically she was killed last summer while serving freedom's cause by a roadside bomb in Iraq. Our Nation will be forever grateful for Jaime's dedication and service and the sacrifice she made for our Nation.
As Commander David Marasco said of Jaime during the memorial service for her last year, Jaime, quote, willingly accepted risk in order to put herself in a better position to help others, end quote.
She was the type of dedicated soldier that we use as an example to our children and grandchildren when we talk about the definition of a true American hero.
We welcome Susan and Kayla, and thank you for making the long trip from Iowa to share your personal story with my colleagues here today.
And I thank you, Mr. Chairman.
[The statement of Congressman Latham appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Congressmen Latham and Ellsworth, you were our first panel. Would you like to answer some questions or would anybody here like to address the Congressmen directly or should we move directly to Susan and the rest of panel two?
Mr. HARE. Mr. Chairman.
Mr. HALL. Yes, Mr. Hare.
Mr. HARE. I would just like Mr. Latham to know that I would be very interested in cosponsoring your bill. So if I can get a hold of your office later today, that would be great. I think it is a wonderful piece of legislation.
Mr. LATHAM. Thank you very much.
Mr. HARE. You are welcome.
Mr. HALL. Mr. Turner?
Mr. TURNER. Mr. Chairman, similarly I would like to recognize Mr. Latham's efforts and indicate my support for his legislation.
Mr. HALL. Not to be a copy-cat, but I also say the same thing.
Mr. Rodriguez also?
Mr. RODRIGUEZ. Yes. Let me just thank you for bringing that forward because there is no doubt that that needs to be corrected, so congratulations to you and thank you for bringing that forth.
Mr. LATHAM. It is because of them.
Mr. HALL. Well, Congressmen, we get to see you all the time, so we will save our questions for you for later. And in the interest of alacrity, we will move on.
Susan, you can stay where you are and we will excuse our distinguished two gentlemen from the Congress here and move on to panel two which includes Amy Clark and Kimberly Hazelgrove.
You are welcome to stay, Mr. Latham.
Oh, I am sorry. And Matthew Heavrin.
As I understand it, we may be joined by Congressman Jerry Lewis. And if he arrives, we will just have him join our panel.
Susan Jaenke, would you like to start us off, please.
STATEMENTS OF SUSAN JAENKE, IOWA FALLS, IA (MOTHER OF DECEASED VETERAN AND GUARDIAN OF GRANDCHILD); AMY CLARK, BARTOW, FL (SPOUSE OF TERMINALLY-ILL VETERAN); MATTHEW B. HEAVRIN, REDLANDS, CA (FATHER OF DECEASED VETERAN AND GUARDIAN OF GRANDCHILD); AND KIMBERLY DAWN HAZELGROVE, LORTON, VA, AND MEMBER, GOLD STAR WIVES OF AMERICA, INC. (WIDOW)
Ms. JAENKE. My name is Susan Jaenke. This is my granddaughter. She is nine years old. She is watching a movie. It is a good thing. It is a good thing.
On June 6th, I got about the worst news that any parent could ever get. My daughter, Jaime, was killed in Anbar Province, Iraq. I had no idea what would happen after that. We were treated very well by our CACO Chief Erdman.
As the days went by and things progressed, we found out that there was a $100,000 gratuity that was supposed to have come to me, but because of a clause that was put into this we could not get this gratuity. What happened after that is a nightmare that I do not like to relive, but I am going to for you.
The bills that Jaime had, had to come from somewhere. They came out of my pocket. They had to be paid. I did not have that $100,000 that was supposed to come to the families.
After that, I was told I had to get Social Security for Kayla. That took three months. In that three months, I had no money whatsoever because everything went into bills to pay back for whatever she had.
We had in that three months, we had two vehicles repossessed because I could not afford them. I could not afford to buy groceries. I could not afford to do anything. I had no money.
By the time Social Security came, I had it, I did not have, I had it, I did not have it. Finally by September, I got it. By that time, I was three months in debt with my house payment. I was behind on my electric bills and I had a little girl that had to go to school. And that takes a lot of money to get her ready for school.
If it had not been for the organizations, the MN Seabee 25, the Seabees and other Seabee units that came forward and got us money and Congressman Latham who let us vent on him and who let us vent on his people, I do not know what would have happened.
By January, I could not afford anything. There was no money at all for Christmas. I had nothing. If it had not been for a VFW group that gave us $1,000, we would not even have had a Christmas.
In between all that, I had to work with Defense Financing and Accounting Center (DFAC) and I had to work with the VA. Calling Millington became such a terrible thing you cannot imagine. The people in Millington, I kept the record beside my telephone book and I put down names of people in Millington not to ever speak to again and people that I could speak to.
I finally tracked down the person that was supposed to get us money from DFAC. He said he had the papers on his desk and it would take 30 days. That 30 days is kind of a mantra from these people. You are kind of afraid after a while to ask when that 30 days begins. You are afraid they are going to say the second Tuesday of next week.
The gentleman that I tracked down in Millington that had Kayla's paperwork, he said give him a call in two weeks and he would tell me how long it would take before the benefits would come from them.
In two weeks, I called him back. He said he never got the papers. I called him back again and he said, well, I will fax you the papers. He faxed me the papers. I filled them out, sent them back to him.
Two weeks I waited again. He called me up and he said I have got three sets of papers that you filled out, what are you trying to pull. And he was very angry with me because now he had three sets of the same paperwork that I filled out sitting on his desk and he thought that I was trying to pull something and get more money. It was not that. It was not that at all.
I had one lady in Millington that made me feel so bad that I interrupted her day that I actually apologized to her for trying to get benefits for my granddaughter.
I got off the phone and I just shook my head. I thought, oh, my goodness. I am apologizing to a woman because I interrupted her day and she was supposed to be helping me. I could not believe it.
I had a Commander that we got in touch with that was in charge of some of the money that Kayla was supposed to get. He said after giving me his sympathy, he told me about himself, that his daughter could not have what she wanted because he had gotten through a divorce and Kayla would have to learn to deal without and do without.
And to me that was just disgusting because Kayla lost a mom. His daughter might not have been able to have everything she wanted because he went through a divorce, and I could care less about his divorce, but here he was telling me that Kayla would have to do without. His daughter still had her mom and dad. His daughter still had siblings. My granddaughter has got nothing.
These are some of the things that I have run across. The bright areas have come from people like Congressman Latham's office that put in this bill for us which, please, please help us get through.
My granddaughter does not need to do without. My daughter's business that she started does not need to do without. This is not right.
My daughter, when she passed away, left this money to me and you know what? It is kind of like a will. This is what she wanted. Maybe she did not understand it. I do have a letter from her telling me what to do and how to spend that $100,000, how to invest Kayla's money, and her money comes from that insurance policy. And I have done all that for her.
The $100,000 I cannot do for her because of this clause that is in there. Please, gentlemen, do not ask my granddaughter to do without anymore.
[The statement of Ms. Jaenke appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Ms. Jaenke.
And thanks to your daughter, Jaime, for her service and sacrifice, and all of your sacrifice for our country.
Ms. JAENKE. Thank you.
Mr. HALL. And I have two things to say. One is on behalf of our government, I want to apologize to you and to Kayla. I am really sorry you had to go through this.
And we will do what we can to try to make sure that your problems are resolved, but perhaps as importantly, to make sure that there are not more cases like yours which cannot be what the American people intend or Congress intends, but more likely is the outgrowth of the mine field of bureaucratic mazes and turf delineations and fiefdoms that we are trying to sort our way through.
I also would ask you before we go on to our next witness if you would be willing to share in writing or not or after the meeting the names of the staff that you spoke to who were not helpful to you.
And, Congressman Latham, would you like to comment further?
Mr. LATHAM. No.
Mr. HALL. Okay. Well, ordinarily we would go through the rest of the witnesses and then come back, but if you would like to address Ms. Jaenke briefly?
Mr. HARE. I do. I just want to say a couple things in your testimony. There is never a need for you to ever apologize ever to anybody for interrupting their day. They have absolutely no idea what you went through and most people never will.
And I just made another note. When you said your granddaughter has nothing, she indeed does. She has you and she is incredibly lucky. And I will tell you—
Ms. JAENKE. I am the lucky one, sir. I am the lucky one.
Mr. HARE. She is a beautiful young lady. And let me just say this to you too. The $100,000 is, you know, a stipend. What value do you ever place on somebody's life? And I will just say this to Representative Latham again, the bill, this is something you do not have to beg us for. I mean, we owe this to you and to other people who have done this.
And so I am honored just to be on this Committee this morning. I am glad I made it and I will tell you that we will do everything we can to get this remedied. Thank you.
Ms. JAENKE. Thank you.
Mr. HALL. We will probably have more questions for you later, but first we will hear from the other two witnesses.
Ms. Amy Clark? Good morning. Could you speak into the microphone? Push the button to make sure it is on.
Mrs. CLARK. I am here to speak on behalf of all veterans, not just my husband, Russell E. Clark, who is a Vietnam veteran himself.
I at the time did not know what Vietnam was as I was a child, so, therefore, I did not live Vietnam. But I am now living Vietnam each and every day of my life with my husband, Russell.
I cannot tell you how much it pains me to see a once vibrant man now just a skeleton of what he used to be and I would like you to please take a look at these pictures of my husband as he was before and as he is now.
On January 8th, 2007, my husband, Russell, was in the hospital. I went in to see him not knowing what was going on. There was a card from a doctor at a bedside table. I called the doctor. He said, Mrs. Clark, I am so sorry to tell you your husband now has lung cancer.
And I said to the doctor, well, since you have now ruined my anniversary, my day in my life, why don't you just tell me how bad the situation really is. He declined to do so saying he would speak to us at a later date which was the next day.
Of course, totally distraught, I went in to my husband on our anniversary like nothing was wrong and he said what did the doctor want. I said he wants to speak with us tomorrow.
The problem with the VA is there is too much red tape when a situation such as this arises. My husband is terminal and has very little time left. That is why claims sit on someone's desk or just get completely ignored until it is too late.
And as my husband said to a reporter and some friends, my wife is like a bulldog on someone's butt and she is not getting off any time soon. Okay?
There is a bureaucratic double speak. This phrase I take from the Lakeland Ledger dated Sunday, April 15th, 2007.
Yes, the VA offers you a book on benefits that you may be entitled to, but just try and get those benefits. It is ridiculous. There are so many forms and questions to answer even for the most minimal benefits.
I can tell you that to date I have over 400 pages of documentation that I have turned to the VA just for Mr. Clark, thus leading to the next point that the system must be changed so that justice can be given to all veterans and their families without the bureaucratic red tape.
The paperwork is so overwhelming. There is no communication set up to help a civilian such as myself to understand what needs to be done. I have spent countless days without sleep, nights without sleep, searching the internet.
However, I was fortunate enough to run into Ernie Roberts, a Bartow, Florida, Veteran Service Officer, and Donna Adams in Congressman Adam Putnam's office which have helped me to overcome some of these hurdles that I have had to overcome.
I have had to quit my job and college to stay home to care for my husband who needs care 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I am the one doing the care and I left him to come here to be able to speak with you.
I cannot speak to the VA unless they speak to Mr. Clark first which, quite frankly, at times is difficult for anyone to speak to Mr. Clark because he is on such heavy medication due to his cancer. Okay? And I am speaking for Mr. Clark as well as other veterans.
Mr. Clark has requested me to be his fiduciary. I have been turned down every single day for months, been told by certain members of the Florida Department of State Veterans Affairs, well, you need to have this approved by a judge.
I called the judge, personal friend, and I called a lawyer, read them the form, and said it does not say anything about that. They have also threatened to take away some of the benefits that they have given him while the fiduciary is granted. How ridiculous is this?
The older veterans, especially Vietnam veterans, have been shoved under the carpet for many years. And the veterans now coming home seem to get their benefits more quickly. This is wrong.
No one should have to produce documentation, such as a morning report, which is what I was requested to do. Needless to say, Mr. Clark does have a morning report which civilians may not be familiar with what that is.
The nonsense about having this medal or that medal is totally ridiculous when, in fact, John Kerry threw his medals over the fence at the White House quite some time ago for all the world to see.
When a veteran has a DD2-14, that should be sufficient information to show what time they put in the service and where they were. Does it not matter what their job was? Of course not. They gave so that we may live in the United States of America, land of the free and home of the brave.
Life insurance policy issued by the Veterans' Life Insurance Company must be changed so that they can be assignable to a funeral home. My husband is going to pass away very shortly. I do not have that kind of money. The life insurance policies they issue are unassignable, so what do I do to bury my husband? I do not have that money. Do you have it?
Buddy letters should not be requested because there are too many veterans that have been killed in action or have died along the way. This is just someone's idea of a joke.
Mr. Clark has been fighting a separate issue for PTSD for many, many years. Okay? And, yet, Mr. Clark has been denied his PTSD. Mr. Clark has documentation in his possession from the veterans' hospital in Tampa, Florida, stating his main diagnosis is PTSD. Imagine that?
One of the things stated in the documentation is you do not have all the symptoms. Well, if I am depressed, do I have to have all the symptoms of depression to be depressed?
The issues of the stressors that I am told that the VA looks for just seems to be more bureaucratic double speak. I was told the stressors could be things like gunfire, picking up dead bodies, shooting women and children, et cetera. And Mr. Clark himself was part of an assassination. If that is not a stressor, I do not know what is.
Then they come up with new stressors stating that if they have heart disease or have had strokes, et cetera, then that is another stressor that leads to PTSD.
They claim they are too overworked and too underpaid to handle all of these themselves, so why put up a stink when it comes to the documentation? If the documentation is presented even from a civilian physician, that should be proof enough.
I was told I could get a rent a doctor by someone in the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs to sign the paperwork my husband needs and then it would be accepted.
When a veteran dies, his or her spouse or children are entitled to DIC, so let us stop the nonsense and just have a short form and provide the quickest documentation and not be told this will take six to eight months or longer to complete. It is no wonder the Department of Veterans Affairs cannot get their jobs done. They make it more difficult on themselves.
Each veteran should be given a packet the first time they ever enter into the VA system and tell them, here, these are things you may need along the way.
We have had the most awful time to get me added as my husband's dependent, which I well should be, which finally has come about. When we went to the VA in 2004, they filled out a form making me his dependent but only in the event he should die in a VA facility.
The man that did this was Alex Benjamin who I understand is no longer with the VA. He never told us that because Mr. Clark's first wife died and that I had been married before we would have to present a death certificate for Mr. Clark's first wife and my divorce decrees.
And every day my plea is a phone call to someone. I have contacted the media. I am going to continue to do what I need to do to make sure my husband gets his benefits as well as all veterans and as this lady is with her grandchild. This is ridiculous. It must be changed.
Another person in the B66 cannot get any benefits because they cannot get a buddy letter or find anybody that is alive. What is wrong with this system? It is just unjust.
[The statement of Mrs. Clark appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Mrs. Clark. And I appreciate your testimony.
And we on this Committee are intent on trying to simplify this process that you have had such a difficult time with and have several pieces of legislation pending and others, I am sure, that will be drafted which will attempt to do that. And we will come back, I am sure, to you with questions.
But first we will go to our next witness, Matthew Heavrin. Just pull that microphone over closer to you.
Mr. HEAVRIN. Mr. Chairman and Committee members who are hearing my testimony today, my name is Matthew B. Heavrin. My wife, who could not be with us today, her name is Barbara Jean Heavrin. We live in Redlands, California. We have four children.
Matthew, who is our oldest, is at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He will graduate this May.
Our daughter, Hannah Leah, served in the U.S. Army as a Quartermaster in Iraqi Freedom until she was killed on September 4, 2006.
Our third child, Philip, serves in the Marine Corps and is currently based in Camp Pendleton, California.
Our fourth child, Ruth Ann, she will be graduating from Redlands High School this June and will be attending Cal State San Bernardino this fall.
I myself am a U.S. Navy veteran. I work as a power plant operator for Los Angeles County. My wife is a registered nurse and is employed by the San Bernardino County Sheriffs.
As you can see, our family has served, will continue to serve this country and mankind. My wife and I have instilled in each of our children importance for love of country and to make this world a better place through service and responsible living.
Our daughter, Hannah, had aspirations to go to college after school. We have some money saved up but not nearly enough to afford her tuition. Our goal is for Hannah to go out and look for grants, scholarships, and other financial aids that would fill the gap.
She came home one afternoon with an Army recruiter. We listened to him and asked Hannah if this is what she truly wanted and she said yes. Off to the Army she went.
After her basic training, she went to individual training and met another young man there who was also in the Army. The two began a relationship and had planned on marriage and Hannah became pregnant. Their relationship failed and Hannah returned home after being discharged from the Army.
Shortly after giving birth to her son, Todd, on November 2nd, 2004, she returned to the Army against our wishes. I personally got on my knees and pled with her not to go back into the Army, that she would most certainly end up in Iraq. She told me that the Army does not send single mothers on deployment. And I really do not know where she got that idea. I can only speculate it was the Army recruiter.
She did indeed reenlist and went to another Army specialized school to become a quartermaster and left Todd in our care. Well, at quartermaster school, she met Chris McKinney, someone who she had gone to high school with in Redlands.
After Hannah finished the quartermaster school, she was assigned to Fort Lewis, Washington. I moved all of Hannah and Todd's personal belongings from Redlands to Fort Lewis in July of 2005 and helped her find a town home in Tacoma, Washington, and assisted her in securing child care on base.
A few weeks later, she told us that she was assigned to the 542nd Maintenance Company as a quartermaster. In September, I learned that the 542nd would be deployed to Iraq. My heart sank. I almost knew her fate right then.
I flew up to Tacoma to stay with my grandson while Hannah went with her unit for maneuver training in Oregon. While staying in her town home, I could not help but notice all the love letters that Chris McKinney had written to Hannah. They were pasted on the wall like wallpaper.
Just before the 542nd Maintenance Company deployed, Hannah brought Todd home and some of his things down with us with a power of attorney so we can make decisions for Todd on Hannah's behalf. That is when I learned that Hannah had gotten married to Chris McKinney. We had not even met Chris at this point and only had a brief description of him.
It was late October 2005, and Hannah's unit deployed to the fort operating base in Taji, Iraq, in the middle of November 2005. While in Iraq, Hannah would phone home and occasionally write. She would tell us how she was reassigned from the quartermaster's office to security. She spent nearly all of her time up in a guard tower along a perimeter road around Fort Taji.
She also sent home some photographs to show the desolation where she was posted and the conditions that she served in. What stood out to me was how lonely she was and how much she wanted to get home. She missed her son, Todd, and her new husband, Chris.
In May of 2006, she was flown home for two weeks R and R. She was so happy to be home and did not want to go back. Todd recognized her almost immediately. Chris, Hannah, and Todd rented a convertible and had a wonderful time as a newly-formed family and spent their time together.
We had talked and began preliminary plans for Chris and Hannah to have a church wedding and that Chris would adopt Todd. A few days before she was to return to Iraq, Hannah's demeanor changed. She was regretting separating from us and Chris and Todd again. She even asked me if I would break her arm for her so that she would not have to return. Of course, I did not and Hannah did return to Iraq. Chris returned to Fort Lewis. Todd stayed with us in Redlands.
On the morning of September 4th, which is Labor Day, on 2006, I was at work when I received a phone call from Barbie. She explained to me that I needed to get home right away. There were two Army chaplains at our door.
I cannot describe to you the range of emotions that I personally endured and grieved with Barbie as she went through hers. From the time of the chaplain visit to planning a funeral to sorting out Hannah's life and that relation to Todd's, we have shed buckets of tears, felt guilty, angry, inadequate, and generally depressed.
Through it all, we have endured it through our faith, our friends, and each other. We have been taking care of our grandson since the day he was born. We videotaped in various stages of his young life so that we can share those moments with Hannah in Iraq. The video CDs were packaged and ready to be mailed out as they would have been if that Monday were not a holiday.
The cause of Hannah's death was under investigation and was difficult to determine how or why she died. As the investigation progressed, we learned that circumstances revolving around Hannah's death were criminal in nature. Never before have I felt this way. It is as though we were betrayed by our sense of honor and service that we adhered by.
Our daughter died for one man's selfish satisfaction. As an NCO in the Army, he was to be about the business of looking after his subordinates. He did otherwise. We feel cheated. Todd's mother is gone. He was cheated. Chris lost his wife. He was cheated. Hannah's siblings have lost a wonderful friend, confidant, and sister. They were cheated.
While it has come to our attention that each soldier had a $100,000 death gratuity and a group life insurance policy of $400,000, we were not aware of these policies until of recent.
We also learned that Chris McKinney received both. I do not know if my daughter so designated Chris or it was automatically paid out to Chris as a survivor since he is the husband. We believe that the assumption was made that Chris is caring for Hannah's son, Todd, which he is not.
The burden of raising our grandson has been on us only. We receive support from no one, nor has Chris McKinney offered his $500,000 to us or to Todd. We are not in the business of taking anything that does not belong to us, but to have our daughter taken from us in this manner that she was and for Todd to grow up without his mother, without her death benefit is just plain wrong.
We believe this is an anomaly that needs to be remedied to benefit the surviving sons and daughters of deceased soldiers, sailors, and airmen and assist the grandparents who raise them.
[The statement of Mr. Heavrin appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Mr. Heavrin, for your testimony. And once again, my sympathies and support and I am sure that the hearts of all the Subcommittee members go out to you and your family. Rest assured that we are going to try to find legislative ways to prevent such problems from occurring in the future.
We will move now to our next witness and recognize Kimberly Hazelgrove.
Mrs. HAZELGROVE. Thank you, and good afternoon, everybody.
I just want to say that I love everybody who is sitting here beside me and behind me today who share in what I have experienced over the last three years.
Chairman Hall, Representative Lamborn, and members of the Subcommittee, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today on behalf of all Gold Star Wives regarding the importance of addressing critical services for America's military widows and widowers and their children who are left behind.
My name is Kimberly Hazelgrove. I am the widow of Chief Warrant Officer Brian Hazelgrove, U.S. Army and a native of Edinburgh, Indiana. My husband entered the Army shortly after graduating high school and served over ten years.
Brian was an energetic and charismatic leader. His soldiers and superiors always had the utmost respect and admiration for his ethics, compassion, and abilities. Above all, he was a career soldier and he was full of ambition, dedication, and potential.
Brian was also a husband and a father to Taylor, Zachary, Brandon, and Kaitlin. He was a gentle and loving father who never failed to prove that he adored his children. At times we both had to endure single parenthood while the other was deployed and understood the important balance of mission and family. And Brian was dedicated to both.
He faithfully deployed to Iraq in support of America's mission in November of 2003. On January 23rd, 2004, Brian was flying a mission in support of ground troops in Iraq with pilot Chief Warrant Officer Michael Blaise when their helicopter crashed. Both Brian and Michael were killed. Brian was 29. Our youngest child was just seven months old.
I was a Sergeant First Class in the U.S. Army stationed at Fort Drum where Brian was stationed as well and the mother of an infant and our toddler, stepmother to two children who live in Indiana currently, and the wife of a deployed soldier. Life was difficult, but with the support of our unit and families, I was independently managing the household and raising our family as he had at times, always with the hope that he was safe and anticipating his return. Our lives were changed forever the day that Brian was killed.
I am here before you as a representative of America's military widows and widowers and as a member of Gold Star Wives. My hope is by the end of my testimony you will see the need to act immediately to rectify the unfair and inadequate resources that Gold Star families endure after notification of their servicemember's death.
I feel that adequate training and resources are still lacking for all personnel who function in the various roles while supporting a casualty's family. Across the spectrum of DoD and VA, there is not one single dedicated office to the military survivor.
It is left to the various representatives of these organizations to do their best, and I mean their best to inform, assist, and support family members in their times of need and they can only do so much within their respective subject matter area of expertise.
After the initial response of support has ended and it always does, family members struggle to research, understand, and stay informed of changes to benefit entitlements and legislative actions.
For the widow or widower of an active-duty servicemember like myself, the military expects a transition of responsibility from the military component in which they served to the Veterans Affairs within approximately six months.
This is a very short time to require a family that has experienced a traumatic life-altering event even under the best circumstances to be able to navigate the complexities of the military's survivor system.
A family previously established in family housing accustomed to living on military bases have increased financial burdens to absorb and a new identity to grasp. The response to family members is critical within the first year after the loss of their loved one. However, it is imperative that there be continuity of service and support to the families of our servicemembers after that initial response has faded away.
As a widow, I receive monetary supplements because of my husband's death while serving his country. I applaud our government's success in increasing that initial death payment and Servicemembers' and Veterans' Group Life Insurance (SGLI) payments to the families of the deceased servicemembers. I would like your support in fulfilling the commitment to fully sustain the benefits of our widows and widowers and those of our children for the future.
The SBP payment, the survivor's benefit pension payment that I receive and worked so hard for for two years brings $99 a month into my household. My full entitlement a month as a surviving spouse is $1,166. The dollar for dollar offset generated by the income I receive from the VA's dependency and indemnity compensation reduces my entitlement by over $1,000. Ninety-nine dollars does not even buy groceries for a week.
Because of my husband's rank and years of service when he died, I actually receive a little bit of money left over where most spouses receive no money at all. This offset does not benefit any military survivor. And, in fact, it especially victimizes those families whose deceased servicemembers were junior enlisted or with less years of service. And that is a crime.
Most of these families are young families like mine is. My $99 a month helps supplement increased child care expenses due to my husband's death, healthcare which I now incur after my three years' period has ended, and household expenses because I am a single, working mother and raising two children and the sole provider for those children.
I would like this panel to realize the entire scope of inequity of this offset. Disabled military retirees, Federal retiree annuitants and their survivors receive their full benefits without offset of the VA's DIC. I ask you here today how is the military survivor any different?
I ask the panel to understand that many widows and widowers are not able to make the monetary sacrifice that I have made here today in order to testify before you. Fortunately, I am here with the blessing of my company to enlighten you of the burden that my family has endured over the past three years of service commitments.
I ask you to remember the young widows and widowers who are at home caring for their young children who cannot be here before you. I ask you to remember the widows and widowers in the other States who cannot afford to be here before you. Your decisions make a difference in their lives.
As my children grow older and our lives change, so do our benefits. I continually need to seek out subject matter experts within the benefits arena on my own. Healthcare, education, Social Security, survivor's benefit annuities, and dependence indemnity compensation all have different requirements that need to be met.
Legislative actions on benefits continue to influence entitlements. Tracking these changes is time consuming and tedious as the information and experts in the field currently are compartmentalized and geographically dispersed.
I work a full-time job and raise my two small children. This has not left me much time to track down the exact person I need to talk to. And to make a note on what these people have said, those civilians in those jobs are generally rude and inadequate and untrained.
Gold Star Wives of America has been a source of support and information beyond anything I have received thus far. The ladies volunteer their time and efforts into educating me on the process that forever lies ahead of me as a widow.
I firmly stand behind and support Gold Star Wives' request that regional survivor's offices be established to meet the needs of military survivors during and more importantly after the casualty assistance officer has finished their duties.
This office would provide oversight to policy issues of survivors, provide transitional assistance, legislative feedback, and act as a main coordinator between the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs. This is a key component to ensuring the commitment to our servicemembers that their families will be taken care of.
As a servicemember entering military service, nowhere are you told that your family will have to fight to receive the adequate benefits upon which they are entitled in the event of your death. Families plan for financial stability in the event of tragedy based on your promise that they will be taken care of. And, yet, I testify before you here today as an example that this has not happened to the full extent.
I implore our leadership to immediately cease the DIC offset to SBP for all widows and widowers with no restraints on time of service or rank.
I thank the Subcommittee