Military orphans don't get any benefits help from the Pentagon. TAPS wants to change that

Julia LeDoux
July 31, 2020 - 3:29 pm


Cheryl Lankford’s death from cancer in May served as  a rallying cry for her Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors family.

The Gold Star wife spent the final months of her life working to make sure that her son’s military health and financial benefits would continue after her death

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“She had a lot of stuff in place,”  said TAPS deputy director of policy and legislation Ashlynne Haycock. “She knew what was coming down the pike.” 

Command Sgt. Maj. Jonathan Lankford, Sr., died of a heart attack in Iraq in 2007. His son, Jonathan Jr., 15, is eligible for a wide assortment of military benefits, including health care, education assistance and survivors payouts, said Haycock.

A casualty assistance officer provided Cheryl help with navigating through all the necessary paperwork to ensure that the family’s military benefits continued after her husband’s death, but she knew no such help would be forthcoming to her son after she died.

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Since Cheryl was not an active duty service member, the Department of Defense is not legally required to provide assistance to her son, an orphaned minor,  even though her death cut off his access to his military benefits he was first eligible for because of his father's service, explained Haycock.  

Cheryl worked to make sure that her sister, who is Jonathan’s legal guardian, knew everything about the benefits her son would receive and about the paperwork that goes along with them. 

While that helped to make the transition easier for Jonathan, for many minor children who have lost both their active-duty parent and their surviving parent, that it isn’t the case, Haycock said. 

That led TAPS to partner with Reps. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., and Phil Roe, R-Tenn., to add a provision to the House of Representatives draft of the defense authorization bill requiring the Pentagon to provide some transition assistance to military orphans like Jonathan.

The standalone measure, known as the Cheryl Lankford Memorial Act, passed the House and is waiting for approval in the Senate.

“Now it’s up to the Senate to include it in the National Defense Authorization Act,” said Haycock.

TAPS estimates that fewer than 12 individuals each year will qualify for the assistance, since losing both parents happens rarely, said Haycock. She said language in the measure is broad, allowing DoD officials the leeway to best determine how to reach out to eligible families. 

“The casualty assistance program already exists,” she said. “This wouldn’t add that many more people to it.”

Haycock herself is a military orphan. Her father, who served in the Army, died in a training accident in 2002, Her mother, an Air Force veteran, died by suicide in 2011

Because her mother wasn’t active duty at the time of her death, Haycock’s family didn’t receive any help in getting benefits switched over to her brother, who was 14 at the time.

“I know he didn’t get everything he deserved,” she said.

Haycock said the measure needs strong support in the Senate in order to become law.

“The more senators that stand behind it, the better,” she said.

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