Like so many of our service members, Lt. Cmdr. Landon Jones thought he was invincible. He was also the saver in his military home, squirreling away money for the future any way he could.
Which is why, in retrospect, it makes sense that he declined his Service member's Group Life Insurance (SGLI) policy five separate times. Even though it could pay his family up to $400,000 if he died, it was a extra $27 he could pocket every single month. Plus, he wasn't going to die so he wouldn't need it anyway.
But then he did.
Lt. Cmdr. Landon Jones and his co-pilot Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jonathan S. Gibson were killed Sept. 22, 2013 when water hit the spinning blades of their helo after it landed on a small Navy ship. The aircraft hit the deck and broke apart. A search and rescue was launched to find Jones and Gibson and then called off.
After a horrifying notification process in which Jones' wife, Theresa Jones, learned of his death via the Navy's social media pages, she was floored when she discovered that she and her two small children would not be receiving her husband's SGLI because he didn't have any. When a service member declines SGLI as Jones did five different time, the spouse is supposed to be notified in writing. And Theresa had never seen any paperwork or other documentation about her husband's actions. And she had never thought of looking at his "page 2" - the part of his SGLI paperwork where he accepts or declines it.
"I don’t think he declined SGLI in an effort to hurt myself or our children," Theresa told me. "I think he did it because he was a frugal man who never believed he would die. He was trained to be a war fighting machine for the Navy. ... While my husband may have taken his decision to save that extra money each month to an extreme, and while he may have been a little cocky in thinking nothing would ever happen to him, and whether or not I agree with it, I can see his train of thought."
Theresa had no idea that her husband could completely decline SGLI. Like many military spouses, she and her husband worked as a team tackling different parts of their home and family. And the deployment related paperwork was his part.
"I feel this is embarrassing because I think people will look at me as a naive, idiotic woman for not asking my husband about the status of his SGLI. I also do not want to paint my husband in a bad light. He was a great husband, wonderful father, and amazing pilot and Navy Officer," she told me. "I am a very educated Navy wife and while I was very involved in my husband’s career, I did not have my hand in every facet of it. Every time we PCS’d, I left it up to my husband to take care of all the receipts and figure out the reimbursements for each of the 6 moves we did in our 10 years of marriage. I did not sit down with him to figure that stuff out. Meanwhile, he left it up to me (mostly) to unpack the boxes and get our home life settled. We worked as a team and knew we each had a job we had to complete and did not micromanage each other as we did them.
Again, because I did not know that you could decline SGLI out right, I guess that was just something that never popped up on my radar. I assumed it was taken care of on his end."
Theresa has appealed the SGLI situation in hopes of still being able to collect it because the Navy did not keep up its end of the bargain according to the regulation. She is also working with her Congressman, Ander Crenshaw, (R-Fla.) to find a fix so this never happens to anyone else again. Still, officials with the Office of SGLI told her that just because the regulation was broken doesn't mean she can collect.
"They say that regardless that it is law that I be notified, the failure of notification does not affect the validity of any coverage election," she said.
In the meantime Theresa says she feels a lot of fear for their future. For the time being she has his $100,000 death gratuity and monthly benefits from the DoD, VA and Social Security. However, over times the payouts will decrease and she will transfer to Tricare Retiree with its higher costs.
"While we are doing fine right now, I worry very much about future," she said. "My sons were 6-years-old and 2.5 months old when my husband was killed. I have at least 18 years of being solely financially responsible for them. I was 33 when my husband was killed and have a very long life to live as well. So, while I am fine today and in the short term, I very much worry about our long term financial security."
While Theresa works to fix her SGLI situation, she hopes that her problem can work as a warning for others. Yes, your service member CAN decline SGLI and you may not be notified. And if the worst happens, you'll be left in even more of a rut.
"What I want other spouses to take away is obviously to have these hard conversations and to not assume anything. Be as proactive as humanly possible in as much as your spouse’s career as they will allow you to be, and even more so when it comes to the realities of the dangerous job they hold," she said. "And now I am left behind on this earth, with 2 young children, to deal with the ramifications of all of it. It is one big mess that I will deal with for the rest of my life. If I can prevent this from happening to another family with my story, then I know it wasn’t all in vain."
Update -- If you’d like to help the Jones family, contributions can be made in person at any Navy Federal Branch, through Paypal, or by mailing a check directly to Navy Federal. The address is 555 Saturn Blvd., Suite C, San Diego, CA 92154. Make checks payable to “Landon Jones Memorial Fund.” The Paypal account is landonjonesmemorialfund(at)gmail(dot)com, and the access code is 7406575. The access code is for Navy FCU, not Paypal.