Under new policy, troops must designate person to take charge of remains
WASHINGTON — Intra-family fights over the burials of two servicemembers killed in Iraq have spurred the Defense Department to update its policies on who is in charge of troops’ remains.
All servicemembers must now name a family member or friend to make funeral and burial decisions if they die, under new department rules. Previously the next-of-kin designation had been optional, and military regulations had left the choice to the deceased’s elder parent if no one was chosen.
But recent high-profile arguments illustrated problems with that policy.
In October, the divorced parents of Army Staff Sgt. Jason Hendrix will meet in court to decide who had the authority to decide where the dead soldier should be laid to rest. His father held a funeral and burial in California in March, but his mother insists she was the soldier’s legal guardian and wants him moved to Oklahoma.
In an interview with the Associated Press in May, the father’s attorney, Sharon Cole Jones, called Hendrix’s death a tragedy made worse by litigation.
“Poor Jason — just leave him alone and let him rest in peace,” Jones told AP.
In late 2004, the mother of Marine Lance Cpl. Nicholas H. Anderson fought unsuccessfully to have him buried in Nevada. Instead, his father chose California.
The cases caught the attention of several congressmen, who petitioned the department to work to prevent the family disputes. In a letter last month, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense John Molino said the elder-parent policy had been “successful for many years” but that recent events had convinced his office to make the change.
The new regulations will require all deployed troops to update their Record of Emergency Data forms, to make sure the relevant information is included, according to Maj. Michael Shavers, spokesman for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense.
“This is an issue of readiness and taking care of the force,” he said. “Death is always a possibility for military members regardless of deployment status. As two recent cases have shown, there is a need to clearly identify the person to be responsible for the disposition of remains.”
Details of how those servicemembers will receive and review the paperwork still needs to be finalized, he said.
Shavers said the issue will be explained during the department’s periodic briefings with servicemembers on related topics like updating emergency contacts, developing family care plans, and keeping wills current.
Under the policy the designated decision-maker should be a blood relative or adopted parent, Shavers said. In cases where troops are married, their spouses will still have final say over funeral issues unless they choose to defer to parents or other family members.
In cases of troops with no blood relatives to make the decision, they will be required to designate a friend or someone else to fill that role, he said.