By the Way

Coast community reaches out after story of widowed veteran’s wife

Jamie Lee of Saucier, with her daughter, Alana, 2, and twin 9-month-olds, Hunter and Hailey, is struggling to get Veterans Affairs benefits after her husband, Hank Lee, a Marine veteran, died in March. The cause of Hank Lee's death, who was being treated for post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, is still unknown.
Jamie Lee of Saucier, with her daughter, Alana, 2, and twin 9-month-olds, Hunter and Hailey, is struggling to get Veterans Affairs benefits after her husband, Hank Lee, a Marine veteran, died in March. The cause of Hank Lee's death, who was being treated for post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, is still unknown. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

I felt one of a mother’s greatest fears this week when I met Jamie Lee.

Apparently a lot of our readers did, too. Since we posted her story Wednesday, plenty have reached out.

Her plight sounds like the makings of a sad movie in desperate need of some sort of happy ending.

A combat veteran’s death by an unexplained cause. A young widow with three children — a 2-year-old girl and a set of 9-month-old twins, a boy and a girl. A mortgage. A car note. And she needs formula, diapers, baby wipes — lots of them.

Her husband had no insurance. He’d come home from war in the Middle East with 200 stitches in his head before he met his wife. Had a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. He coded while in VA care in Boston, where he was waiting for a room to open up in a PTSD clinic.

Lance Cpl. Hank Lee, 35, had not checked off life insurance on a form in documents to be completed within 120 days of his separation from the military. Apparently, no one considered he might need someone’s help, such as a social worker, to complete the documents.

The plot thickens. The Department of Veterans Affairs has sent Jamie Lee a letter saying it can’t consider giving benefits to her and the children until she sends them copies of her husband’s autopsy and toxicology reports. Which she doesn’t have. It could take three months to process her claim, and possibly longer for any benefits to find their way to her checking account.

Hank Lee died March 4. It took 20 days to get his body home for a funeral.

“How am I going to take care of my children?” she asked as I interviewed her while photojournalist John Fitzghugh recorded video of our conversation. She began to weep.

I wanted to cry with her, to jump up and hug her and hold her and tell her everything will work out. (I fought that urge until I was about to leave her home and caught sight of those smiling, red-haired, blue-eyed babies.)

Hank Lee was willing to die on the battlefield if need be. And now his family’s financial stability hangs in the balance.

Jamie Lee of Saucier learned after her husband’s death that he never filled out some paperwork to make sure that he kept his life insurance after he was discharged. The Marine served in Afghanistan and Iraq and suffered from post traumatic stress

I’ve received a number of calls and emails from people wanting to help her. I’ve referred quite a few to the GoFundMe.com page that’s accepting donations. The fund grew by about $1,000 overnight, to $3,907 on Thursday afternoon. The goal is $10,000. It could take months before Lee could actually see any dependents’ benefits money.

Some callers don’t want to sent money through GoFundMe, or don’t know how.

A Saucier church has invited Lee to its food pantry.

Perhaps the sweetest offer came from an 89-year-old survivor of Nazi Germany. She wants to visit with Jamie Lee. Says she was once a midwife. Says she’s good with children.

The Sun Herald learned of Jamie Lee’s plight through Rick Collins, founder and executive director of Veterans 360. His group’s mission is to help combat veterans succeed. Jamie Lee’s story tugged at his heart. As it did mine. And as it has with our readers.

Staffers for Congressmen Roger Wicker and Steven Palazzo are doing what they can to help guide Jamie Lee through the process. And maybe they can push for legislation that requires the VA to offer guidance to combat-wounded veterans who may not be able to think clearly about the need for insurance as they wade through their separation papers.

Meanwhile, I wonder how I would feel if I were in her shoes. How would you feel if it were you?

Robin Fitzgerald: 228-896-2307, @robincrimenews

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