Soldier's Death Sparks Custody Dispute

A divorced couple is battling over their soldier son's remains following his death in Iraq. The case threatens to affect long-standing military policy on how the Pentagon deals with divorced parents when their child dies in service.

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The divorced parents of a US soldier who was killed this year in Iraq are now fighting a legal battle over his remains. The mother in California and the father in Oklahoma each want to decide where he's buried. NPR's Richard Gonzales reports the dispute partly centers around a long-standing Army policy that hasn't got much attention until now.

RICHARD GONZALES reporting:

In February, Renee Amick received the knock at her door that every soldier's mother dreads. It was a man in uniform with a grim message from the Army.

Ms. RENEE AMICK (Mother of Soldier Killed in Iraq): And I brought him in and I sat him down at the kitchen table, and he proceeded to tell me that my son, Jason Hendrix, had been killed at approximately 6:00 PM in Ar Ramadi, Iraq, by an explosion.

GONZALES: Soon, the 29-year-old sergeant's remains were shipped to a mortuary in his boyhood home of Watsonville, California. But as Renee Amick was arranging her son's burial, she got a court order telling her to stop. Her ex-husband, Russell Hendrix, had divorced Amick 14 years ago, but he still convinced an Oklahoma judge to award him the body because he was the last one to have legal custody of their son.

Amick went to court hoping to keep her son's remains in California. But the Army sided with the father, invoking a little-known policy of granting a dead soldier's remains to the eldest surviving parent. That's how Jason Hendrix's body wound up being shipped to Oklahoma, where he was laid to rest next to his grandfather, a former Marine. The soldier's mother was stunned.

Ms. AMICK: I could not believe that the Army would send me my son, ask me to prepare all those final arrangements and then a few days later tell me that, `Sorry, we're sending him to his father.'

GONZALES: Two weeks after her son's burial, Amick received a letter from his commanding officer, telling her that Sergeant Hendrix died a hero after rescuing a fellow soldier from a burning armored vehicle. The letter indicated that her son wanted all of his personal belongings to go to her. But his father, who wasn't mentioned, had already won the battle for his remains.

Representative SAM FARR (Democrat, California): Well, it was military bureaucracy that caused the problem.

GONZALES: Amick's congressman, Sam Farr of Monterey, has sponsored legislation to prevent other families from experiencing such confusion. It would require soldiers to designate someone to receive their remains if they are killed in combat. And Farr says the Army's long-standing policy of awarding a soldier's remains to the eldest surviving parent is insufficient.

Rep. FARR: And I think that the mothers have been excluded from this process because the Army policy was that it would go to the oldest parent. And in almost all cases, that is the father.

GONZALES: Omar James, the lawyer who represented Jason's father, says the dispute could have been avoided if the young sergeant had made it clear to the Army where he wanted to be buried.

Mr. OMAR JAMES (Lawyer): Soldiers have a form that they fill out when they're restationed. `Where do you want your remains to go in the event that you're killed in action?' And he didn't fill the form out, or he left that part of the form blank.

GONZALES: But a copy of that form--known as a DD-93--tells another story, too. On that document, Hendrix indicated that he wanted his mother to be notified in the event of his death. The sergeant made no mention of his father.

The Army didn't respond to numerous requests for a comment on the policy that gives eldest parents authority over a child's remains. Meanwhile, the legal battle over Sergeant Jason Hendrix continues. If Renee Amick prevails, she says she'll have her son's body disinterred and returned to his home in California. Richard Gonzales, NPR News.

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