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Grandparents Raising the Children of Fallen Soldiers

Army Pfc. Hannah McKinney's young son, Todd, and new husband were waiting for her to come home from Iraq last September. But just weeks before they were to be reunited, McKinney, 20, was killed in action. Now her parents, Barbie and Matt Heavrin of Redlands, Calif., are raising 2-year-old Todd, McKinney's child from a previous relationship.

"Some days I'm overwhelmed with sadness thinking about Hannah," says Barbie Heavrin. Despite the emotional devastation, grandparents and other relatives who are left to raise a loved one's child don't get the financial support from the government that a surviving parent would.

The Heavrins are rearing their grandson without the benefit of the $100,000 "death gratuity" the government gives to next-of-kin—defined as spouse or child—to offset the financial burden when a service member is killed. Nor did the Heavrins, who have been rearing Todd since their daughter's deployment to Iraq, receive the $400,000 from group life insurance in which soldiers are automatically enrolled. McKinney had chosen her husband of less than a year as the beneficiary of both, despite the fact that he was not living with or caring for the toddler.

"You have an awful lot of grandparents who are caregivers while their children are deployed," says Kathleen Moakler of the National Military Family Association in Alexandria, Va. Of the 3,131 soldiers killed in Iraq as of Feb. 3, a total of 143 were single parents, according to the U.S. Defense Department.

To assist caregivers in these situations, Congress is considering legislation that would allow some or all of a soldier's death gratuity to go to the children's grandparents or other guardians.

"The death benefit system overlooks that people other than spouses would take care of a minor should the unthinkable happen," says James Carstensen, spokesman for Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, who introduced the legislation along with Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.

"We need this legislation passed," says Susan Jaenke of Iowa Falls, Iowa, who cares for her granddaughter, Kayla, 9. Jaenke's daughter, who was a single parent, died in Iraq, and Jaenke didn't receive the death benefits—they're set aside for Kayla to collect when she's 18.

"I'm having trouble making ends meet," Jaenke says. "It's pretty scary."

Additional Related Links:

Send a Message of Support to American Troops (AARP The Magazine)

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