From the Homefront: The topic no one wants to discuss, but information you need to know

Twice a month, Coast Guard All Hands will feature “From the Homefront,” a column for Coast Guard spouses by Coast Guard spouse Shelley Kimball. Shelley has been married to Capt. Joe Kimball, chief of the office of aviation forces at Coast Guard headquarters, for 16 years. She currently serves on the board of directors for the Military Family Advisory Network.

Two HH-65 Dolphin helicopters from U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Los Angeles conduct a fly-over during a military memorial service for Ensign Christopher M. Symons, a Reservist attached to the Foreign Vessel Branch of Coast Guard Sector San Diego, held at Pacific View Memorial Park, Corona del Mar, Calif. Monday, June 30, 2008. Members of the U.S. Coast Guard Ceremonial Honor Guard performed ceremonial duties during the service. (U.S. Coast Guard Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jetta H. Disco)

Two HH-65 Dolphin helicopters from U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Los Angeles conduct a fly-over during a military memorial service for Ensign Christopher M. Symons, a Reservist attached to the Foreign Vessel Branch of Coast Guard Sector San Diego, held at Pacific View Memorial Park, Corona del Mar, Calif. Monday, June 30, 2008. Members of the U.S. Coast Guard Ceremonial Honor Guard performed ceremonial duties during the service. (U.S. Coast Guard Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jetta H. Disco)

Three of the most beautiful words in the English language are “Safe on deck.”

My husband is a Coast Guard aviator, and that is the text he sends me every time he lands safely. It’s the text that lets me breath again.

I know I am not the only military spouse who worries a lot about her active duty member. And for as much as we are worrying, we aren’t talking about it.

I wanted to take our worries about the worst outcomes and put them to a positive use, so I put together some information on how to prepare for one of the most terrible things imaginable – the loss of an active duty member or dependent family member. Knowledge is power, as they say, and hiding from this won’t do us any good.

“Most families don’t know this,” said Brian Behlke, the casualty matters chief for the Coast Guard, “and you really don’t need to until the worst happens.”

And Behlke knows this stuff. He has been doing this for 10 years, first for the U.S. Navy, and now for the Coast Guard. So if the worst does happen, Behlke said, the military service will be there to help families “through the worst hours of their lives.”

There are some things we can do to make all of that just a little easier. No one wants to be fighting for help and benefits while overcome by grief.

Portrait of Shelley Kimball.

Portrait of Shelley Kimball

If you are like me, just about now you are thinking that you can take care of this later. Don’t. And don’t wait to do all of this for an upcoming TDY or deployment. In Behlke’s experience, that is not when the worst happens. Most active duty deaths are car accidents or suicides.

“We all prep up for deployment, for underway,” Behlke said. “But we really should be worrying when are at home.”

So, to start, Behlke said, get a copy of the active duty member’s 2020D. Don’t worry, I will never remember that number, either. It’s called a Designation of Beneficiaries and Record of Emergency Data form. (Other military branches have it, too, but it may not be numbered the same. Almost all of them have the words record of emergency data in the name.)

When you get that form, make sure everything the active duty member put down is correct. Most of them are not.

“Roughly 90 percent of service members records have at least one error in the emergency record of data,” Behlke said. “Most of them are minor, something that would delay processing of documents. That’s what delays assistance.”

So check the beneficiaries, and check all the addresses, too. Errors mean that military representatives will then have to track down the correct information before they can help families file for benefits.

“We’ll find them but that’s a big delay,” Behlke said.

The first part of the form deals with emergency notifications. The rest of the form deals with dispersing money and giving survivors rights to make decisions. Know that the form remains the binding document unless it is updated. So if family circumstances have changed due to separation, divorce, a falling out, a new member is added to the family – anything—update the form.

The bottom of the form has two acronyms: PADD and PERE. The PADD is the Person Authorized to Direct Disposition of Remains, meaning the person who has the right to decide funeral arrangements and what happens to the decedent’s remains. (I know, this is really not what you want to be reading about right now. Hang on, though. The best time to figure this out is when you are well.)

A Coast Guardsman presents a rose for a fallen shipmate and salutes in front of the Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn Memorial during the 33rd anniversary memorial service of the Blackthorn collision at Blackthorn Memorial Park in St. Petersburg, Fla., Monday, Jan. 28, 2013. The Blackthorn sank after colliding with the tanker Capricorn near the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, Jan. 28, 1980. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael De Nyse.

A Coast Guardsman presents a rose for a fallen shipmate and salutes in front of the Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn Memorial during the 33rd anniversary memorial service of the Blackthorn collision at Blackthorn Memorial Park in St. Petersburg, Fla., Monday, Jan. 28, 2013. The Blackthorn sank after colliding with the tanker Capricorn near the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, Jan. 28, 1980. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael De Nyse)

Okay, back to the PADD. You need to make your wishes known to someone, and then put that someone’s contact information on the form. This is a somewhat recent addition because families are no longer traditional. It used to be that state laws would predict who became the PADD. This designation on the form trumps a will in all states except Louisiana, so be specific.

The next one, the PERE , is the Person Eligible to Receive Effects. That tells the military to whom they should give the decedent’s stuff. Without guidance, it tends to go to the elder parent. (For example, Dad is older than Mom, Dad gets the stuff.) A will can provide guidance here, too, but for the most part the military hands over the stuff to the PERE and lets the family deal with it from there.

The last part of the form even has space for information that will make the process go smoothly: the location of the will, life insurance companies to notify, religious preferences, etc.

The next thing to know is what will actually happen if someone dies. I have told more than one of my husband’s commanding officers that if I see them walking up my walkway unannounced, I will likely refuse to answer the door. Beyond command, another source of help will be the casualty assistance calls officer. (Again, this is something all military branches provide. Their official titles might vary, but the words casualty assistance are in all of them.) If you hear this spoken, people will often say the acronym: CACO (kay-koh).

The CACO or a local Decedent Affairs Officer will contact the family, and provide a support system to help them get through the next months until all of the benefits are in place. Even if the death is not related to military duty, the CACO will respond. Often, the family already knows of the death by the time the CACO gets to them.

“In those cases we do a notification call, but it’s also a condolence, letting them know you are there to help, and ready to take care of all the things to come,” Behlke said.

The meeting is also to help engage the family’s support system, to make sure they have someone with them to help them get through the grief, whether that is family and friends or a chaplain. The goal is to be sure that they are in good hands with someone before the CACO leaves.

A next meeting with the CACO might be to determine how to handle funeral arrangements, and that would include the PADD.

The CACO sticks by the family until all of the benefits are applied for, especially. In some cases, that may mean that a case stays open for 18 years because a beneficiary is a child and the money isn’t released until the child becomes of age.

For that reason, Behlke said, he recommends looking into setting up a trust for children who might become beneficiaries, or at least to put instructions on how to set up a trust in a will. Check with a legal office to learn how to go about this.

“It’s something most people don’t think about until you leave the guardians in the situation,” he said.

Eric and Patty Bruckenthal display a picture of their son Nathan Bruckenthal after a memorial service held at Coast Guard Station Eaton's Neck, N.Y., April 24, 2009. Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Bruckenthal was killed in action at the Khawr Al Amay Oil Terminal off the coast of Iraq on April 24 2004. Bruckenthal was a member of LEDET 403, which had been deployed as part of Coast Guard Patrol Forces Southwest Asia. The team was attached to the USS Firebolt (PC-10). Bruckenthal was the first Coast Guardsmen killed in combat since the Vietnam War.

Eric and Patty Bruckenthal display a picture of their son Nathan Bruckenthal after a memorial service held at Coast Guard Station Eaton’s Neck, N.Y., April 24, 2009. Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Bruckenthal was killed in action at the Khawr Al Amay Oil Terminal off the coast of Iraq on April 24 2004. Bruckenthal was the first Coast Guardsmen killed in combat since the Vietnam War.  (U.S. Coast Guard photo/PA3 Annie R. Berlin)

The process with the CACO is only slightly different if the decedent is a spouse or child of an active duty member. In that situation, the response engages when the family alerts the military branch. Then, the CACO or a local Decedent Affairs Officer will contact the family directly. Filing the Family Servicembers’ Group Life Insurance claim might be a bit slower because the death certificate is necessary before the claim can be filed.

“We can prep the forms,” Behlke said, “but we really can’t submit them until we get the death certificate.”

Let’s go over a little bit about Service Members Group Life Insurance and Family Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance. Unless the servicemember declines coverage, SGLI automatically goes into effect. If the servicemember is covered, then benefits can be made available relatively quickly when everything is in order.

“Especially if you do have children and a spouse, the money is really there for them,” Behlke said. “Your paycheck stops the day you die. Depending on when you die, the bills can be waiting there the next day.”

The FSGLI is an added benefit that provides life insurance for an active duty member’s spouse of up to $100,000. Coverage for children is free until they turn 18. Behlke said he highly recommends FSGLI if for nothing other than funeral expenses, which can be staggering.

You might want to take a look at those documents if you haven’t done so recently. The SGLI form changed a few years back, and it may affect the designated beneficiaries. For example, the old form assumed the spouse would be the beneficiary of the death gratuity, which is a portion of benefits made available right away, and it didn’t include a block for that to be specified. The current form now has a block for a specific designation, but if you haven’t updated it in a while, it may have rolled the secondary beneficiaries up into that block on the form because there was no one else listed. That happened in our family, and what should go to the spouse and family was designated to our parents. It was a quick fix to set it right.

So get those documents together. The Coast Guard has a yearly validation of 2020D, SGLI and FSGLI. If you missed that opportunity, or want to make another update, contact a Servicing Personnel Officer, or SPO, to update those documents at any other time of the year.

I know this is not the story you wanted to be reading today. But we, as Coast Guard families, need to face this head-on and make sure we have everything in order.

“If we are speaking to the servicemembers, we want to make sure your families are taken care of,” Behlke said. “For the spouses, if they have a part in the preparation for it — we never want the worst to happen — but then you’re a step ahead already.”

Resources:

  • Get a copy of the 2020D: This is the place to start to make sure everything is in order. Either take advantage of the yearly validation or contact a Servicing Personnel Officer, or SPO, to update at any other time of the year.
  • Coast Guard Casualty Matters Office: This site provides information CACO officers, decedent affairs officers, military funerals, and casualty procedures.
  • Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance: The overview from the Coast Guard and one from the Veteran’s Administration explain SGLI coverage, including monthly premiums and deductions. It also debunks myths and rumors about coverage. The information about the Family Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance is also available from the Coast Guard and from the VA.
  • CACO Handbook: This is the Coast Guard’s handbook for the Casualty Assistance Calls Officer.
  • Survivor’s Guide to Benefits: This published by the Department of Defense, and it includes Coast Guard families. It explains not only the assistance families will receive from casualty support officers, but it also explains funeral and memorial arrangements and some financial information.
  • Tragedy Assistance Program: TAPS is a nonprofit organization that cares for military families who have suffered a loss of an active duty member. It can be reached online, or by phone on the TAPS National Military Survivor Helpline at 800-959-TAPS (8277).
  • The Chaplain Corps: Chaplains can be integral to family support through the grieving process.

 

To learn more, view this similar post about survivor Tricare benefits.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.

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