As ordinary citizens, we assume that when a service member dies, the families of the fallen are well taken care of by the government. Sure, there are entitlements and benefits in place to help military families pick up the pieces — but what happens when those benefits are tied up by red tape, a bureaucratic process called a Line of Duty investigation, that can take over a year to complete?
A LOD investigation defined by the Army:
“Soldier who becomes sick or injured while on active-duty or during an excused absence is entitled to certain benefits, including pay and allowances, if the soldier’s injuries or illness are not the result of the soldier’s intentional misconduct or willful negligence. A line of duty investigation is the process to determine if the soldier’s intentional misconduct or willful negligence was the proximate cause of the illness or injury. A line of duty investigation will also be conducted in the event of the death of a soldier.”
In early 2020, while working in a congressional district office, I was approached by a constituent named Heather Piedrahita. Heather came to our office seeking help with the criminal and LOD investigation regarding the death of her husband, Steven Piedrahita. Steven died by suicide as a result of untreated service-related PTSD in April 2019, while receiving treatment at a U.S. Navy facility for his suicidal ideations.
Heather collected the Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance and the servicemember death gratuity from the Department of Defense within days of Steven’s passing. She waited patiently as Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the command conducted both their criminal and LOD investigations. Representatives kept adequate communication with her for a while, but eventually that communication began to fade. Once communication began to dwindle, Heather decided to abandon the idea of “not being a difficult spouse” — a perception spouses often fear — and began advocating for herself and her children. A year after Steven’s death, she was still awaiting her spouse benefit plan, designated indemnity compensation, and access to her spouse’s personal belongings — but most importantly her ability to move forward.
When Heather came to our office to conduct a congressional inquiry, she was very candid and said to me, “I am not trying to be callous, but we know what he did, he was there receiving treatment for his illness that he eventually succumbed to.” Our office did what we could to contact different agencies and although those agencies were sympathetic to the situation, they were tied by policy. They too, seemed bewildered by the fact they could not do anything to help the Piedrahita family — or other families in similar situations. The best the congressional office could do was have investigators resume periodic communication and allow Heather access to her spouse’s belongings.
Heather and I recently connected to discuss this article. She is appreciative that her story is being shared and would like to see some sort of changes for Gold Star families regarding the LOD investigations. She told me that they were financially savvy, and that it was never really about the money. Instead, it felt like she had been pushed aside at a time when she deserved communication and closure. Heather thought often about the spouses who were too afraid to shed the “don’t be a difficult spouse” notion to speak up for themselves. Heather understands why there are policies and procedures in place, however, when the cause of death, especially under the supervision of medical experts, is pretty obvious — why would it take 18 months to complete an investigation?
Heather Piedrahita is not alone in her story. There are other spouses who have encountered the same barriers to their SBP and DIC payments. Theresa Jones, a Gold Star spouse and advocate, would periodically reach out to me with similar stories. One story was about a woman named Katie Walker, whose spouse Lt. Cmdr. Charles Walker was the training officer for the Vigilantes of Strike Fighter Squadron 151 based in Lemoore, CA. In July of 2019, during one of his training missions through a low-altitude flight path known as Star Wars canyon, his Super Hornet collided with the canyon wall. When I spoke to Katie regarding her experience with the LOD investigation process, she informed me that she had numerous conversations with her casualty assistance calls officer about the delay in receiving her SBP and DIC payments. The CACO never mentioned an LOD determination as a requirement to SBP or DIC. The final determination of the LOD was complete January 2020. Her comments to me were the same as others: “Why would an investigation like that take so long? He was in his uniform, flying his plane, on his training mission, he was obviously in the line of duty.”
So, what can be done? For starters, more awareness needs to be brought to these issues. Families should have more opportunities to come forward, share these stories, and be given the tools to be able to advocate for themselves. Secondly, there needs to be procedural due process for cases where it is obvious that the servicemember died in the line of duty. Another option could be a waiver for families needing access to certain benefits immediately. Make no mistake — investigations are a necessity to identify foul motives or misconduct, but when it is obvious that a servicemember was killed in the line of duty and we are to assume positive intent, there is no reason to drag Gold Star families through undue hardships.
A native of Houston, TX, Karla Langham is a Program Manager at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring Our Heroes initiative. Prior to her work at Hiring our Heroes, she was a field representative and caseworker for California’s 51st Congressional District. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Houston and a Graduate Degree from Middlebury Institute of International Studies. She is a military spouse and advocate for military families.
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