On Eve of Funeral, Marine's Widow Remains in Limbo

Photo of Master Sgt. Jeffrey Briar and Jennifer Crowley from their Sept. 22, 2019 beach ceremony (via GoFundMe)
Photo of Master Sgt. Jeffrey Briar and Jennifer Crowley from their Sept. 22, 2019 beach ceremony (via GoFundMe)

Jennifer Crowley became a widow on the same day she married Marine Master Sgt. Jeffrey Briar. Nearly two months later, she still has not been recognized as Briar's official spouse -- no covered travel to funeral and memorial events, no guarantee of Tricare insurance and other survivor benefits, no authority to make the final arrangements she says her husband wanted.

Crowley says the Marine Corps should re-examine its policies to better care for grieving spouses in her unusual situation; service officials say the circumstances are unique and serve to illustrate the importance of keeping important life documents up to date.

As a last-ditch measure, a law firm now plans to send a cease-and-desist letter on Crowley's behalf to the funeral home holding Briar's body.

"On behalf of Jennifer Briar we have been speaking with USMC officials in an attempt to establish Mrs. Briar's authority to make decisions about her husband's remains," Toni O'Neill, an attorney with Patriots Law Group and former Air Force defense attorney, told Military.com in a statement. "Thus far they have been unwilling to point me to a regulation or instruction that supports their position [that they cannot transfer disposition authority to her]. ... It is a shame that they are obstructing Jennifer's right to carry out her husband's wishes. We are now asking the funeral home to release the body to Jennifer and hope that the USMC will not stand in the way of that happening."

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Briar's funeral is set to take place in Virginia's Quantico National Cemetery on Wednesday, following his Sept. 22 accidental drowning death. The communications officer for Tactical Training and Exercise Control Group, out of Twentynine Palms, California, had gone for a swim with Crowley's teenage children following a wedding ceremony on the beach, and got caught in a rip current. While the children survived, he tragically did not.

In the absence of an official wedding certificate, the Marine Corps made Briar's father the person authorized to direct disposition of remains, or PADD, making funeral decisions his responsibility. Crowley, however, says Briar wanted to be cremated and returned to California. The Marine Corps, she said, should transfer PADD authority to her.

What has followed is somewhat chaotic. Briar was initially set to be interred in Arlington National Cemetery on Nov. 12, but the funeral was suspended just days before. In a last-minute decision, the cemetery proceeded with funeral honors at Arlington, but did not inter Briar; the funeral was rescheduled for Quantico. As the yet-unrecognized spouse, Crowley said she had to drive through the night from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, to make it in time for the funeral honors, which she learned indirectly had been ordered to resume.

"Arlington National Cemetery reviewed MSgt Briar's case and found he was ineligible to be buried there, since his deceased spouse was buried in a National Cemetery in March 2019," a spokesman for Marine Corps Manpower and Reserve Affairs, Maj. Craig Thomas, told Military.com. "Therefore, MSgt Briar is scheduled to be buried at the Quantico National Cemetery in accordance with the PADD's desires."

Thomas said Briar had last updated his record of emergency document, or RED, in June 2019, but failed to designate Crowley as the PADD.

"Upon MSgt Briar's death on 22 September, the individual designated by MSgt Briar on the RED was deceased," Thomas told Military.com in a statement. "At the time of his death, and in the order of precedence dictated by the regulation, the MSgt's father was the closest living relative."

Reached by phone, Briar's father, Larry Briar, told Military.com that he expected Crowley to be at Wednesday's funeral before saying he didn't have time to talk further. Briar's mother, Debbie Robinson, who has publicly disputed the legitimacy of Crowley's wedding to Briar, said she would forward a request for comment to her attorney.

While Crowley said she submitted a copy of a court-authorized certificate of delayed marriage, reviewed by Military.com, to the Marine Corps on Nov. 10, the Corps has yet to formally recognize her as Briar's next-of-kin. Thomas said the service is seeking independent confirmation from the state of California, a process expected to take two weeks. And even if that process were not ongoing, the Marine Corps has no plans to transfer disposition authority once arrangements are underway.

"The family's wishes along with the father, the PADD, was for military honors and funeral at Arlington," Thomas said. "The father has not relinquished the responsibilities as the PADD, and there are no plans to remove the father as the PADD."

Crowley told Military.com she had been recognized as Briar's spouse at the Arlington ceremony and had been presented with the flag from his casket and the shells from the ceremonial gun salute.

"I was treated extremely well by the staff in Arlington," she said.

But she doesn't understand why the Marine Corps won't recognize the delayed certificate of marriage she presented them without further proof and why PADD authority cannot be transferred.

"I need to make sure [Briar's] final wishes are carried out, and this is what he wanted," she said. "They told me until they find out that the paperwork is legitimate ... I'm just in limbo. If I got into a car accident [today], I have no Tricare."

Crowley said she and Briar had shared a life together for two years prior to his death -- she was even given power of attorney, she said, when he deployed in 2018.

"The Marine Corps will continue to encourage all Marines to keep their Record of Emergency Data (RED) and Servicemember's Group Life Insurance (SGLI) updated with the people they wish to receive their death benefits and handle their affairs should they pass away. Marines can update their RED at any time via Marine Online," Thomas said. "Furthermore, all service members are encouraged to have current wills, which can be obtained at legal assistance."

Thomas added that Crowley's travel and transportation expenses associated with the burial will be reimbursed if her marriage is formally validated by the court. The Marine Corps, he said, has recommended Crowley reach out to the Briar family to discuss disposition of the master sergeant's remains.

"I hope this doesn't happen to anyone in the future," Crowley said. "And [I hope] they will be able to put [something] in place to make sure it doesn't happen again."

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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