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WASHINGTON — Too often, casualty assistance officers don’t have the financial and technical information families need when a servicemember is killed, a panel of military widows told Congress on Thursday.

“My assistance officer did the absolute best he could to help me, but he was not educated in the things that came after the funeral; things like insurance, social security, benefits available for my children,” said Tiffany Petty, whose husband Jerrick was killed in a December 2003 firefight outside of Mosul.

“The soldiers who were with my husband in Iraq were the ones who got me a military ID card,” Petty said. She said those soldiers also “were there when I needed someone to talk to, when I needed to hear things about his service.” Petty and other widows were on hand to testify before the Senate Veterans Affairs committee about the shortcomings in military death benefits, and ways to ease the bureaucratic hurdles families face after a servicemember’s death.

Members of the National Military Families Association and the Gold Star Wives of America complained about inconsistencies with medical coverage, confusing deadlines to switch insurance policies and a lack of resources for survivors to answer their questions.

Jennifer McCollum, whose husband Dan was killed in a plane crash in Pakistan in January 2002, told senators her medical coverage has been disrupted twice over the last three years and she was never informed about financial and legal support services.

At one point, she moved from Florida to California to be closer to an available military treatment facility, only to find out a few months later she could no longer use those medical services.

“I am discovering that casualty assistance is increasingly failing miserably and disgracefully,” she said. “Successful assistance is not the rule; it is quite the exception.”

Committee members said they are focused on not only improving the compensation side of military death benefits — several voiced support for increases in the death gratuity proposed by the Pentagon earlier in the week — but also on ensuring families’ emotional needs.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he would like to see those casualty assistance responsibilities referred in part to civilian counselors, who could provide more consistency than the ever-mobile active-duty personnel. Widows at the hearing also voiced support for supplying more comprehensive information on college tuition, tax issues and family counseling services.


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