Sun. Jun 23rd, 2024

ROTC cadets don’t receive military death benefits. Families who lost loved ones are trying to change that.

By 37ci3 May25,2024

WASHINGTON – Jessica Swan’s daughter Mackenzie was her “miracle baby.”

He was kind, smart, and always wanted to be a scientist—even correcting his mother on the pronunciations of various dinosaurs in high school. He grew up in Alaska, where he grew up, loving the mountains as an artist and athlete. In high school, he joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps, or ROTC, and enjoyed it so much that he continued his commitment in college.

But in the Air Force Cadet development visit in June 2022, Mackenzie rode in a Humvee with her fellow cadets. A car driven by a person who was not trained to drive over the speed limit spun and overturned. “Mostly, [they] “Go have fun,” said his mother.

Then Mackenzie He was killed at the age of 20. Moment The Air Force released a report after the crash found numerous protocol violations. Idaho authorities have filed charges against the driver, but were fired in November; the case is on appeal.

“You’re living every parent’s worst nightmare,” Swan reminded NBC News in a recent interview with a photo of her daughter in military uniform hanging over her shoulder on a wall. “And then, on top of that, the huge financial strain.”

killed rotc cadet Mackenzie Swan
Mackenzie Wilson in ROTC uniform.Courtesy Jessica Swan

Families of active-duty military personnel who go missing in the line of duty receive death benefits, including a $100,000 “bounty” and insurance. But family members of ROTC cadets like Swan are not eligible. Neither are the families of those enrolled in the Delayed Entry Program, in which individuals in the inactive reserve commit to report for basic training at a certain future date and are encouraged to train with recruits during that time.

For Swan, funeral expenses, missing months of work as a teacher and traveling between Alaska, where she lives, and Idaho, where McKenzie was killed, drained her bank account. On the first anniversary of her daughter’s death, she packed up her rental house in Alaska — the last place Mackenzie called home — after being evicted.

killed rotc cadet Mackenzie Swan
Mackenzie Wilson, pictured, loved the mountains around Alaska where she grew up — “even in the winter, when she last came home to visit in December 2021,” her mother recalls.Courtesy Jessica Swan

A death benefit from the military “would have relieved that financial strain because it very quickly became a logistical nightmare,” Swan said. “The grant would mean I could keep our rental house when we put it on the market. I could protect the last place he lived. Our memories in that house.”

Manny Vega has made it his business to find and reach out to families like Swan’s, knowing all too well what it feels like to “shout into the wind” for support and find little.

Vega’s 21-year-old son Patrick, a longtime Marine veteran, always dreamed of wearing a uniform. A few days after arriving at the main training, he fell ill. Less than two weeks into boot camp, he was dead.

Vega and his family are to blame poor medical care and the “coldness” of military culture Before his death, Patrick said he was “taking care of young, inexperienced, scared recruits” because he couldn’t get the care he needed for complications from a cold. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service ruled Patrick’s death natural, saying he had a history of sepsis and autoimmune diseases, the result of a family dispute.

As a service-disabled veteran with a medal that says “heroism,” I’m very conflicted that the Marine Corps failed my son – ’cause they did, they failed my son – and they failed his family. Vega told NBC News. “It’s very painful. … Just the coldness of the culture was really sad.”

Patrick died in boot camp, making him active duty and thus eligible for death benefits. But the questions and lessons from his death prompted Vega to turn her grief into action: starting an advocacy group called Save Our Service Members, lobbying lawmakers for policy changes, and seeking out and supporting other families who have suffered similar losses.

The old naval motto “Leave No One Behind” enlivens Vegan’s advocacy.

“As a grieving family, you’re screaming into the wind,” Vega said. “I mean, you’re there and you’re on Capitol Hill … you can yell at all these members and they’ll nod their heads and everything, but if you don’t yell but you ask the right member for specific things, it’s never going to go anywhere.”

To make sure her advocacy was going somewhere, Vega called a friend from boot camp: Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Calif. Carbajal, for his part, is sponsoring a bill to strengthen access to more military death benefits for families of ROTC cadets and late-entry soldiers, R-Fla., Rep. Found a two-way partnership with Michael Waltz.

Part of that bill was included in the fiscal year 2025 National Defense Authorization Act, the annual military legislative package considered must-pass. The NDAA includes legislation that would extend benefits such as death benefits and accident assistance to the families of ROTC cadets killed in official training activities. That bill passed committee Tuesday, with an amendment sponsored by Carbajal that would also expand Servicemember Group Life Insurance eligibility to third- and fourth-year ROTC cadets and delayed entry program soldiers. More than a dozen Democrats and Republicans eventually signed the amendment. The bill will be discussed in the next chamber.

The issue is personal for Carbajal and Waltz. “He also served in the ROTC program at one time,” Carbajal said, pointing to Waltz. “I served in the Delayed Entry Program. We know firsthand what these loopholes can do in terms of not providing for the families of servicemen killed in service and… what it does to their families.”

Waltz agreed, citing the military’s ongoing recruiting and retention crisis as an additional reason to act. For families, the realization can be shocking, Waltz said: “Oh, wait a minute, my son or daughter is about to jump out of airplanes, but they’re not getting the same benefits that every member of the military does?'”

Both members agreed that policies like these can be passed more easily when lawmakers share service experiences. Waltz cited the mentality of “serving a cause greater than ourselves,” and Carbajal called it a chance to “do the right thing” and “put country before parties and politics.”

How would it feel to call her old friend Vega and tell her they did the job? “It’s going to make a lot of sense,” Carbajal said.

And for Swan, who is still fighting for her daughter Mackenzie, the policy change, however small, may have a silver lining.

“If it helps someone else, I’ll feel like he didn’t die in vain,” he said.

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By 37ci3

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