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Iraq Vets

Benefits Change for Grandparents Raising Fallen Soldiers' Children

Grandparents and other relatives caring for the children of deployed soldiers get some needed financial security July 1 when the U.S. military will allow soldiers to earmark a one-time, $100,000 payment to non-spousal caregivers in the event they are killed while serving the country.

The change spells relief to thousands of single parents who serve in the military and to those left to raise the soldiers' children. Nearly 16,000 single parents have been deployed since Oct. 1, 2001, according to the Department of Defense. A total of 249 of those parents have been killed.

Susan Jaenke's daughter, Jaime, was one of those fallen soldiers, killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2006. "I didn't just lose my daughter," said Jaenke, of Iowa Falls, Iowa, "I lost my best friend." The soldier left her daughter Kayla, now age 11, with her grandmother. Before her deployment, Jaime Jaenke designated her daughter to receive $400,000 in group life insurance benefits at age 18 should she be killed and listed her mother as beneficiary of a so-called "death gratuity."

Upon the death of active-duty military personnel, the Department of Defense provides families with the death gratuity, a tax-exempt $100,000 payment designed to meet the immediate needs of survivors.

After her daughter's death, Susan Jaenke discovered she was not eligible for the payment. The law prevented her from receiving such benefits, even though she was designated by Jaime and was raising her daughter. The law directed the gratuity to any surviving child if there is no surviving spouse. If the child is a minor, the money is put into a trust account based on pertinent state law until age 18. "It's like you’re stealing from your granddaughter to raise her," Jaenke said.

"Caregivers who are raising these children need the support to do it," said Amy Goyer, national coordinator for the AARP Foundation's Grandparenting Program. "As a nation, we weren't quite prepared for what was going to happen to these families. We have an obligation to help them."

Jaenke and her granddaughter were living on less than $1,500 a month. "I was on the verge of losing my house," Jaenke said, "my credit was shot."

"Unfortunately, the families of these soldiers have unintentionally been excluded from important benefits intended to help them," according to U.S. Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), who upon hearing Jaenke's story helped to change the law.

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