In the depths of grief after the death of her son aboard the destroyer John S. McCain last August, Theresa Palmer received word that her boy’s remains would return to the United States via Dover Air Force Base.
Interior Communications Electrician 2nd Class Logan Palmer died with nine of his shipmates on Aug. 21, after the warship collided with a tanker near Singapore.
For the Illinois mom, there was no question: She was going to Dover to meet her son.
Then the Pentagon’s bureaucracy kicked in.
Palmer said the family’s casualty assistance officer told them the military wouldn’t pay for them to fly to Dover, because their 23-year-old son’s death was not combat-related.
“I feel like, we’re all caught off guard, we’re all numb, and we’re all trying to figure this out, then you add the pressure of having to figure out how to get there,” she said.
Palmer said this week that other families told her of similar issues.
An amendment to the Fiscal 2019 defense bill aims to change that Pentagon policy.
After hearing from the Palmers regarding the issue, Congressman Rodney Davis moved to insert the amendment so that the military pays for families of fallen service members to fly to places like Dover for their loved ones’ return, regardless of how they died.
“I was a little frustrated,” the Illinois Republican said. “I went to the military and asked them why is it that families have to pay their own way?”
Palmer praised the casualty assistance officers who worked with her and arranged for Fisher House to pay the Palmers’ way to their son’s homecoming at the Delaware base, known as a “dignified transfer.”
“We were shocked that that was not going to be covered,” she said. “You wonder how many people don’t go to the dignified transfer just because they can’t afford the transportation.”
Davis credited Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Robert Wilkie, currently also serving as acting Veterans Affairs Department secretary, with spearheading an effort within the Pentagon to change the policy.
While Davis said he was told the Pentagon has changed this policy internally, he also wanted it codified in the defense bill.
Pentagon officials confirmed Wednesday that the policy is being changed.
Families like the Palmers can ask the Pentagon for a waiver, Davis said, “but it wasn’t guaranteed that waiver would go through.”
“They shouldn’t leave any family behind when they’re going through the sacrifices that so many of us have never faced, of losing a child,” Davis said. “The military needs to be reminded on occasion that they need to put a face and put a stamp on doing what’s best for the families.”
Davis said he hadn’t spoken with any other affected families, but was troubled by the Palmers’ experience.
“The point I made to the military brass on day one is that if you can’t do it right for the families of those who have sacrificed so much, how can I expect you to do it right every day, for those serving in that situation?” Davis said.
The House’s version of the Fiscal 2019 defense bill is expected to be voted on this week.
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.