After Gold Star wife Cheryl Lankford was diagnosed with cancer, she spent the final few months of her life working to make sure that military health and financial benefits for her 15-year-old son, Jonathan Jr., wouldn’t die with her.
“If she hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have known where to start,” said Erika Alleyne, Lankford’s sister and now Jonathan’s legal guardian. “I was aware of some of the benefits and paperwork. But I would not have been able to get through it all on my own.”
As the son of a fallen soldier — Command Sgt. Maj. Jonathan Lankford Sr. died of a heart attack in Iraq in 2007 — Jonathan Jr. is eligible for military health care, survivors payouts, education assistance and other Defense Department benefits.
When his father died, the Army sent a casualty assistance officer to their house to help sort through all the confusing and copious paperwork.
But when Cherly died in May, no such assistance was offered. Since she was not an active military member, defense officials had no requirement to send assistance to help the orphaned minor, even though his mother’s death cut off his access to all of those military benefits.
“It’s a daunting challenge in the midst of all that grief to even know what questions to ask,” said Bonnie Carroll, president and founder of the Tragedy Assistance Program For Survivors. “These families have already sacrificed so much for this country. We have to find a way to be there for them.”
TAPS leaders have partnered with a pair of lawmakers — Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., and Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn. — to add a provision to the House’s draft of the annual defense authorization bill mandating that military officials provide some transition assistance to orphans like Jonathan Jr. to ensure another tragedy doesn’t block them from receiving family military benefits.
The measure, named for Cheryl Lankford, is expected to be voted on as part of the broader defense budget measure later this week.
“We always seem to find enough resources to send our men and women in uniform into harm’s way, and I’m on a mission to ensure that taking care of those who return, and the families of those who do not, is given equal priority,” said Phillips, whose own father was killed in action during the Vietnam War when the congressman was still an infant.