Family Fights Over Soldier's Remains

In a Santa Cruz, Calif., courtroom a divorced couple is battling over custody of their son's remains. Army Staff Sgt. Jason Hendrix was killed in Iraq and buried in Oklahoma, next to his paternal grandfather. But the soldier's mother says he wanted to be buried in California.

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A bitter custody battle is going on in a California court. At stake: the remains of a 28-year-old Army sergeant who was killed in Iraq. Earlier this year, Jason Hendrix was buried in Oklahoma at his father's request. His mother says that violated the soldier's last wishes. NPR's Richard Gonzales has the story.

RICHARD GONZALES reporting:

The Army says Sergeant Jason Hendrix died a hero, rescuing several fellow soldiers from the flames after their convoy was nearly incinerated by a roadside bomb outside Baghdad. Soon Hendrix's body was shipped to his boyhood home of Watsonville, California, where his mother, Rinee Amick, began making arrangements to cremate him. Amick says she was carrying out his wishes based on a conversation they had more than a year ago, before he was deployed.

Ms. RINEE AMICK (Mother of Sergeant Jason Hendrix): And then he let me know that he wanted me to take care of all final arrangements, burial, cremation, financial, bills of any kind, any last-minute things that would have to be taken care of. And he told me that he wanted me to do this because he loved me and he trusted me and I had always been there for him.

GONZALES: Jason Hendrix had also filled out an Army document known as a DD-93, indicating that his mother should be notified in the event of his death. The form listed his father as unknown. But after the soldier was killed, Russell Hendrix was still able to convince judges in Oklahoma and California to award him his son's body. Hendrix invoked a 1991 divorce settlement that gave him legal custody. Plus, there was a standing Army policy of awarding a dead soldier's remains to the eldest surviving parent. That's how Jason Hendrix wound up buried in Oklahoma.

Michael Barsi is Rinee Amick's attorney.

Mr. MICHAEL BARSI (Attorney for Rinee Amick): The fact that the US military initially award Jason Hendrix's remains to his mother, flew his body from Iraq to Dover and to California, and then decided, based upon what I call an archaic policy, to give the body to the eldest parent, was unconscionable.

GONZALES: Now the dispute is back in court, and the dead soldier's father is claiming his son never asked his mother to handle his funeral. The father's attorney is Omar James.

Mr. OMAR JAMES (Attorney for Russell Hendrix): Why, if this request by your son and promise by you was the cornerstone of your case and was your driving motivation, did you wait until after the court had ruled, after your son was buried?

GONZALES: So far, testimony in the trial reveals long-standing hostilities within a fractured family. And the father's attorney, Omar James, says if the mother wins, she'll seek to exhume Jason Hendrix's body from its resting place in Oklahoma.

Mr. JAMES: To disturb the repose of that deceased soldier would be an absolute desecration.

GONZALES: Rinee Amick says she hasn't decided what she'll do if she wins.

Ms. AMICK: I just pray that there's not another mother that has to go through what I've had to go through, because there's another mother in Nevada that's going through the same exact thing, and there's another mother in Michigan that's going through the same exact thing. And it's just so devastating.

GONZALES: Even before the trial began, the Department of Defense modified its policy as a result of this dispute. Soldiers will now be required to specifically state who gets their remains in the event of their death. Richard Gonzales, NPR News.

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