Articles

DoD denied benefits to a veteran's widow over a wrong checked box

Joseph Parrinello served his country during three wars – World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. He met and married Margaret Donnelly while serving in England. They married on December 27, 1957.  She followed him to all his assignments and did what many wives did at that time: she took care of the children and managed the household.


In 1972, Joseph retired after 28 years of service. His chief concern in life was making sure Margaret, who was 14 years younger than he and only ever worked in the home, was taken care of if he died. After a lifetime of investments, the Defense Department is denying his beloved her survivor benefits because of one wrongly checked box.

After many years together, they divorced in 1991. There was no love lost, Margaret married Joseph at 19 and had just never really known life without Joseph. He still loved her and she was still the mother of his children, so she remained the beneficiary of his Survivor Benefit Plan, even though they were no longer married. During their time apart, Joseph gave his beloved money every month to take care of her, even after the children came of age and left home. It was a surprise to no one when they remarried in 2006. Joseph was 83 and Margaret was 69.

By that time, Joseph had battled cancer and kidney failure. His overall health declined for years, but he never filed a disability claim with the Department of Veterans' Affairs because he only wanted what he was due and felt the VA didn't owe him anything. So he lived on Social Security and his retirement pay as an E-7 with 28 years in service.

Throughout his retirement, Joseph paid 15 percent of his income to take care of Margaret. He had an allotment taken out of his retirement to cover her in the event of his death, resulting in several decades of investment. His survivor benefit plan listed her as the sole beneficiary. At 83, he was tired, ill, and not as sharp as he once was. He didn't change Margaret's status from "former spouse" back to "current spouse" on the SBP form because he didn't think he had to. In his mind, his Margaret was both former and current, and was going to be okay.

When he died at age 91 in December 2014, his daughter Lisa, also an Air Force veteran, tried to help her mother claim her survivor benefits.  They initially filed in December of 2014 – but the Defense Finance and Accounting Service said they didn't receive Margaret's claim, though DFAS was sure to stop Joseph's retirement pay and take back pay for part of the month of December. So Margaret refiled in January and was told it takes about six weeks to receive benefits.

Joseph Parrinello

After six weeks, Margaret called DFAS to check the status. The answer was the claim was "still processing". When her daughter Lisa called in February 2015, the claim was "still processing."  In March 2015, Lisa was told her mother "will get paid by the end of March."  In April, the claim was "still processing" and DFAS asked Margaret to send more documents to support her claim.

Lisa, frustrated, contacted her congressman, Mark Sanford. Sanford's office was able to get an answer from the Defense Department. On June 1, 2015, Margaret was officially denied her benefits because the form had "former spouse" checked even though she is both the former and current spouse and her name is also on the form stating her as beneficiary. The family was told the form needed to be changed through the Air Force Personnel Center. The change (if approved) can take up to 18 months but the Air Force is "backlogged and must go in order."

As Margaret waits for the Air Force to check a different box, she's about to lose the house she shared with Joseph, their car, their treasured possessions, and the last wishes and lifetime work of a  28-year Air Force Master Sergeant, who only wanted the love of his life to be taken care of when he died.

The Defense Department did not tell the Parrinellos where Joseph's 20-plus years of investments went or where they will go if they're not given to Margaret.

History

This pilot shot down an enemy fighter at Pearl Harbor in his pajamas

Comfort is important when doing a hard job. If it's hot on the work site, it's important to stay cool. If it's hazardous, proper protection needs to be worn. And comfort is apparently key when the Japanese sneak attack the Navy. Just ask Lt. Phil Rasmussen, who was one of four pilots who managed to get off the ground to fight the Japanese in the air.

Rasmussen, like many other American GIs in Hawaii that day, was still asleep when the Japanese launched the attack at 0755. The Army Air Forces 2nd Lieutenant was still groggy and in his pajamas when the attacking wave of enemy fighters swarmed Wheeler Field and destroyed many of the Army's aircraft on the ground.

Damaged aircraft on Hickam Field, Hawaii, after the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

There were still a number of outdated Curtiss P-36A Hawk fighters that were relatively untouched by the attack. Lieutenant Rasmussen strapped on a .45 pistol and ran out to the flightline, still in his pajamas, determined to meet the sucker-punching Japanese onslaught.

By the time the attack ended, Wheeler and Hickam Fields were both devastated. Bellows Field also took a lot of damage, its living quarters, mess halls, and chapels strafed by Japanese Zeros. American troops threw back everything they could muster – from anti-aircraft guns to their sidearms. But Rasmussen and a handful of other daring American pilots managed to get in the air, ready to take the fight right back to Japan in the Hawks if they had to. They took off under fire, but were still airborne.

Pearl Harbor pilots Harry Brown, Phil Rasmussen, Ken Taylor, George Welch, and Lewis Sanders.

They made it as far as Kaneohe Bay.

The four brave pilots were led by radio to Kaneohe, where they engaged 11 enemy fighters in a vicious dogfight. Even in his obsolete old fighter, Rasmussen proved that technology is no match for good ol' martial skills and courage under fire. He managed to shoot down one of the 11, but was double-teamed by two attacking Zeros.

Gunfire and 20mm shells shattered his canopy, destroyed his radio, and took out his hydraulic lines and rudder cables. He was forced out of the fighting, escaping into nearby clouds and making his way back to Wheeler Field. When he landed, he did it without brakes, a rudder, or a tailwheel.

There were 500 bullet holes in the P-36A's fuselage.

Skillz.

Lieutenant Rasmussen earned the Silver Star for his boldness and would survive the war, getting his second kill in 1943. He retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1965, but will live on in the Museum of the United States Air Force, forever immortalized as he hops into an outdated aircraft in his pajamas.

(U.S. Air Force photo)

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