After Gold Star wife Cheryl Lankford was diagnosed with cancer, she spent the final few months of her life working to make sure that military health and financial benefits for her 15-year-old son, Jonathan Jr., wouldn’t die with her.
“If she hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have known where to start,” said Erika Alleyne, Lankford’s sister and now Jonathan’s legal guardian. “I was aware of some of the benefits and paperwork. But I would not have been able to get through it all on my own.”
As the son of a fallen soldier — Command Sgt. Maj. Jonathan Lankford Sr. died of a heart attack in Iraq in 2007 — Jonathan Jr. is eligible for military health care, survivors payouts, education assistance and other Defense Department benefits.
When his father died, the Army sent a casualty assistance officer to their house to help sort through all the confusing and copious paperwork.
But when Cherly died in May, no such assistance was offered. Since she was not an active military member, defense officials had no requirement to send assistance to help the orphaned minor, even though his mother’s death cut off his access to all of those military benefits.
“It’s a daunting challenge in the midst of all that grief to even know what questions to ask,” said Bonnie Carroll, president and founder of the Tragedy Assistance Program For Survivors. “These families have already sacrificed so much for this country. We have to find a way to be there for them.”
TAPS leaders have partnered with a pair of lawmakers — Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., and Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn. — to add a provision to the House’s draft of the annual defense authorization bill mandating that military officials provide some transition assistance to orphans like Jonathan Jr. to ensure another tragedy doesn’t block them from receiving family military benefits.
The measure, named for Cheryl Lankford, is expected to be voted on as part of the broader defense budget measure later this week.
“We always seem to find enough resources to send our men and women in uniform into harm’s way, and I’m on a mission to ensure that taking care of those who return, and the families of those who do not, is given equal priority,” said Phillips, whose own father was killed in action during the Vietnam War when the congressman was still an infant.
“These families — these children — have made unimaginable sacrifices. They deserve our respect and our support.”
TAPS officials estimate that fewer than a dozen individuals a year will qualify for the new mandate, since losing both parents is a relatively rare tragedy. The language is broad, allowing defense officials to determine how to best reach out to families that might be affected.
Since the casualty assistance program already exists, adding just a few more eligible survivors should not create any significant new costs, advocates argue.
But for the family members affected, the help could be life changing.
Ashlynne Haycock, deputy director of policy and legislation for TAPS, was only 10 years old when her father, Army Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Haycock, died in 2002 while training to deploy to Iraq. Her mother, an Air Force veteran, died by suicide nine years later.
Because her mother was no longer in the service at the time of her death, the family received no assistance in shifting their benefits over to her younger brother, just 14 at the time.
“I know he didn’t get everything he deserved,” she said. “The family who took him in didn’t know everything about the military benefits at the time. They ended up paying for things out of pocket they shouldn’t have.”
In the Lankfords’ case, Cheryl was an experienced advocate with close ties to TAPS determined her son wouldn’t face the same obstacles. Contacts in the military and veteran community have added extra assistance in recent weeks since her passing.
Caroll said few families have those kinds of advantages, and the military needs to help make sure that kind of unique community support isn’t a prerequisite to helping them.
“This is just the right thing to do,” she said.
Alleyne said for now, she and Jonathan Jr. are adjusting to life without Cheryl. Not having to worry about his benefits has allowed them some extra time and peace of mind to grieve her loss.
“He’s doing well amid all the chaos in our lives,” she said. “We’re just taking it one day at a time, getting everything we can control under control.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.