Every year, dozens of families that lose a breadwinner who is killed in the line of military duty receive hundreds of dollars less in their monthly Pentagon survivor benefit checks than other families, Roll Call has learned.
The unlucky families get less merely because the deceased soldier happened to fall into the wrong payroll category on the day of his or her death.
The surviving spouses, who often have children to support after losing the family’s primary earner, are typically unaware they have been receiving the smaller payments, which in some cases can be the difference between affording a mortgage or not.
“A gut punch is exactly what it felt like,” says Rhonda Jahns, a widow who learned of the inequity only after the Pentagon told her they had accidentally been paying her too much money and would have to stop. “My kids were only 3 and 5 at the time, so it was hard in lots of different ways.”
Few in the U.S. military and on Capitol Hill know about the problem — and those who know have only learned about it in the past few years. The issue has received no previous media attention.
At issue is a requirement that the Pentagon pay the survivors of some members of the National Guard and reserves more than others — sometimes nearly 10 times more. Those reservists who, on the day of their deaths, were either called to active duty or assigned to so-called active duty training get much more than those who happen to have been designated on their last day as being in a status called “inactive duty training.”
But the distinction between active and inactive training status is a bureaucratic, even random, one, experts say. Whether a service member is paid through one account or the other is typically a function of which of the two funds has more money on a given day or what kind of duty the service member needs to accrue, according to a previously unpublicized Pentagon budget document proposing that the rule be changed.
The distinction has little or nothing to do with the mission being performed. The same reservist, for example, could be considered active one day or inactive the next, even if he or she was performing the exact same task on both days. In fact, two reservists performing the same task on the same day could even be on different duty statuses.
“If you get killed in the line of duty, that should count enough, no matter what kind of status you’re in,” says Jahns. “That’s the ultimate sacrifice.”
The Pentagon agrees. It wants to change the law that covers the so-called Survivor Benefit Program. An average of 67 families are shortchanged every year because of the discrepancy, according to the Defense Department budget documents.
“Every day, teams of active and reserve component airmen work together to accomplish the Air Force mission,” says Gabe Camarillo, the Air Force’s assistant secretary for manpower and reserve affairs, in a statement for Roll Call. “If something should happen, causing an airman to make the ultimate sacrifice, that airman and his or her family should be properly cared for. The survivor benefits the airman’s family receives should not depend on the duty status in which the airman was serving.”
Now, key members of Congress appear willing to change the law. If they fail, it appears it will only be because of the cost of doing so, even though that is infinitesimal in the scheme of the annual national defense budget: less than $2 million of a $600 billion-plus total.
The problem was exemplified by a fatal Black Hawk helicopter crash on March 10, 2015. Eleven U.S. military service personnel died that day when their chopper went down amid heavy fog off the coast of the Florida Panhandle near Pensacola. Seven of those who died were Marines. The other four were members of the Louisiana Army National Guard; three were fathers, while the fourth had a baby on the way.
After the accident, the Pentagon provided the families of the fallen guardsmen considerably less in survivor payments than the Marines’ families got — not because the guardsmen were reservists, but merely because they were reservists who were officially designated on that particular day as being on inactive duty training, an Army National Guard spokesman confirmed.
Likewise, Arlington Cemetery rules do not permit soldiers slain while on inactive duty to be buried there. The family of Staff Sgt. Thomas C. Florich III, one of the guardsman who died in the Florida Black Hawk crash last year, had wanted him buried at Arlington. (Florich was eventually allowed to be buried there only after the Army secretary, under pressure over the ban, relented and granted a waiver.)
The Black Hawk crash was hardly the only example of the disparate treatment of those killed in the line of duty. In some cases, two reservists have died on the same day, in the same incident, performing the same mission — but under different duty status designations. As a result, their families received widely disparate benefits.
That was the case on April 2, 2004, when Judson B. Brinson and Thomas L. Moore were both killed after their T-6A Texan II turboprop training plane crashed at an airport in Georgia. Both men were Air Force Reserve captains who had served as flight instructors. One pilot had been designated as inactive that day and the other as active, according to the Pentagon budget documents. So the inactive captain’s family received a far smaller survivor’s check each month.
Outside of Defense Department human resources offices, the unequal payments based on an administrative categorization were virtually unknown for several years.
Then a relative handful of people in the U.S. military became aware of the discrepancy after hearing of it due to a clerical error.
Air Force Reserve Maj. Peter Jahns, who was Rhonda Jahns’ husband, died in 2003 when his T-38 Talon training jet crashed on a runway in Texas. But it wasn’t until 2012 that the Pentagon informed Jahns’ widow and 94 other surviving spouses they had netted too much in survivor benefits. Officials hadn’t noticed the decedents had been listed as inactive on their last day.
“This means you have been overpaid since you began receiving your annuity in March 2003,” wrote Thomas McKenna, head of the survivors program for the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, in a January 2012 letter. “Therefore, beginning with your next scheduled payment on February 1, 2012, your payment will stop.”
The letter is memorialized at 95letters.com, a website created by Todd Ernst, an Air Force reserve veteran who served with Peter Jahns.
“I hate it when people say, ‘The military takes care of its own,’” says Ernst. “The military family takes care of its own, but if we rely on the military to take care of us, they’ll never do it.”
Even today, many families of deceased reservists who died on inactive status are still unaware they are eligible for less than other survivors.
“I don’t know of any benefits withheld,” says Stephen Florich, the father of Staff Sgt. Thomas C. Florich III, the guardsman buried at Arlington whose survivors were entitled to less because he died on inactive duty status.
The survivors of reservists who die on inactive duty are not only entitled to less money, but their children cannot receive it.
That fact worsened the shock for the widow of Chief Warrant Officer Clayton Barnes.
Before he died in 2007, Barnes was about to switch his specialty in the Army National Guard from Apache pilot to dentist. He was scheduled for one last Apache training flight on Aug. 20 of that year.
It would turn out to be his last flight of any kind. He and his copilot, Chief Warrant Officer James Linder, also a guardsman, died that day when their Apache went down near Lake Mountain in Utah.
Barnes’ widow, who has remarried and whose name is now Melinda Runk, was another recipient of the 2012 Pentagon letter saying she was not entitled to the full amount of benefits she had been receiving.
Because her then-husband had died on inactive duty, she not only would be entitled to less in survivor benefits but, she learned, what little she might have gotten would be taken away because she had named her children as beneficiaries.
Runk describes filling out paperwork after Barnes had died — in a state of grief, pregnant with her fourth child — without being told that naming her children as beneficiaries might turn out to be a major problem.
“When someone in the National Guard loses their dad or their husband in the line of duty, they should receive equal benefits as active duty,” Runk says. “It’s a loss of life. They lost everything. I want this to change for people.”
Advocates for the National Guard and reserves are pushing back against not only the survivor benefits inequity but also several other ways they say reservists remain separate and unequal within the U.S. military, even though they comprise a bigger share of the force than they did before 9/11 — the majority of the Army, in fact.
For example, the advocates are working to ensure that reservists with significant service time can, like their military brethren in the regular services, finally be considered veterans for purposes of receiving consideration in federal hiring. Reservists and guardsmen also feel they are given short shrift in Pentagon procurements.
“The guard and reserve have incurred the same risks and made the same contributions as the active forces, and they must not be treated as second-class soldiers,” says Jeff Phillips, a retired two-star general who is executive director of the Reserve Officers Association, which advocates for America’s reservists.
A House-Senate conference committee writing a final version of this year’s defense authorization measure is looking to address the death benefits. The House-passed version would eliminate reservists’ smaller payments based on duty status and would allow their children or dependent parents to receive the money.
“We must honor the memory of our fallen service members that have paid the ultimate sacrifice by ensuring that we take care of their families after their passing,” says Rep. Marc Veasey, a Texas Democrat who sponsored the House language, in a statement for Roll Call. “This change would ensure that families grieving the loss of a fallen loved one will have one less thing to worry about and will instead have the financial security to pay their rent, car notes, groceries and additional everyday expenses.”
The Senate bill contains no such provision. But Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain is looking to secure the money needed to solve the problem, an aide to the Arizona Republican disclosed. To pay for the fix, according to Senate rules, authorizers must offset in this year’s bill a decade’s worth of mandatory spending on the higher benefit — or $13 million.
“Chairman McCain is generally supportive of DOD’s proposal, especially given the fact that reserve component members risk their lives performing many of the same missions as those on active duty,” a McCain spokesman said. “He is committed to working with his House and Senate colleagues in the conference to identify the required offset to realize this proposal.”