Alone and left to plan a new future
November 30, 2008
GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — Spouses of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan who want to stay in their overseas homes face a complex set of requirements to remain longer than the typical 90-day limit following a spouse’s death, military officials said.
Family members have to apply to housing officials, garrison commanders, Defense Department schools officials and — if they want to retain such privileges as vehicle registration, tax-free gas and other rationed items — to their local national government.
Other privileges, such as military banking, medical and dental services, and postal services, are available depending on various circumstances.
The requirements to fulfill to stay beyond the 90-day grace period came as a shock to one surviving spouse.
Michelle Gamboa wanted to stay in Grafenwöhr with her five children after her husband, Staff Sgt. Joseph D. Gamboa, 34, of Guam, was killed by an enemy mortar strike in Baghdad on March 26.
"I wasn’t ready to leave. I wanted to stay there. But you have no choice. There is nothing you can possibly say or do. [The Army says] ‘We are going to pack your stuff up and you have to leave now,’ " she said.
Leaders from her husband’s unit, the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, initially told Gamboa that she could stay in her on-post home for a year.
But after she returned from Joseph’s funeral in Guam — with only 20 days left — her casualty assistance officer told her about the 90-day rule.
“It wasn’t a good pill to swallow,” said Sgt. 1st Class Toby Gibson, her casualty assistance officer. “She wanted to stay a little longer and get things in perspective. To get things set up and have something to go home to. Her timetable was thrown off.”
Gamboa said the reason she wanted to stay was to give her children a sense of stability.
“I wanted to keep the kids in the same environment. It is hard being a single parent and raising five children. We lived there two years, and that was all they were used to. For them to get up and go and start a whole new life was really hard,” she said.
Gamboa wanted to stay near friends who had supported her in the days and weeks after Joseph’s death — other people from Guam living in Grafenwöhr and spouses from the regiment whose husbands are still serving in Iraq.
And she wanted to be in Vilseck when 2nd Cav came home.
“I wanted to stay at least for the day when the troops came home and see some of Joe’s good friends,” she said.
Instead, Gamboa and the kids moved to Guam in July, she said.
U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwöhr assistant casualty manager Mario Mena said his office started telling families about the 90-day rule in April after discovering that spouses of deceased soldiers lose their status of forces agreement privileges at that stage. The SOFA is an agreement between the U.S. and German governments that gives U.S. servicemembers and their families special status.
Mena said the loss of SOFA status at 90 days means a family that wants to stay longer would face numerous restrictions such as having to de-register their vehicles and turn in any military driver’s licenses and they could no longer shop tax-free at the commissary or post exchange.
“We have only been applying these standards since April,” he said, adding that U.S.-based families of soldiers who die while on active duty are entitled to stay in their military housing for up to a year after the death.
U.S. Army Europe spokeswoman Hilde Patton, however, said the 90-day rule has been in effect since the SOFA agreement was signed “and there have been no changes to that.”
Servicemembers can petition the German government to retain SOFA privileges after the 90 days, Patton said in an e-mail. She said no requests for an exception to the 90-day rule have been made in the past year.
Christoph Baumeister, a spokesman for the German state department, refused to comment about any change to their exemption policy.