In-Depth: Lexington Family's Tragedy Results in DOD Changes

Oct 4, 2011

LEXINGTON, Ky. – The death of a military service member can be a traumatic experience for families, and waiting several months for the funeral bills to be paid doesn't help with the healing process. Reporter Brenna Angel has the story of a central Kentucky family whose persistence led the U.S. Department of Defense to change how it manages mortuary affairs.

When Adam Puckett decided to join the military, he looked at all the different service branches. By the spring of 2007, he was going through basic training on Parris Island.

"And he was just dead set; he wanted to be a Marine," says Adam's father, Tommy Puckett.

Lance Corporal Puckett was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment based in Hawaii. He saw deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

When the 1/3 Battalion completed its Afghanistan tour, Adam returned home to Lexington while on leave. The Marine was having trouble sleeping, seeing flashbacks of friends killed on the battlefield, and he stayed out for days at a time.

Then, on July 8, 2010, the Pucketts experienced the worst day of their lives.

"And this young lady calls me and said that she couldn't wake Adam up and she had called an ambulance. And I don't know why but for some reason I said Is he breathing?' and she said, I don't think so.'"

His family didn't know it at the time, but Adam was taking prescription drugs to help him sleep. He died from an accidental overdose at the age of 25.

Because Adam was active duty military, he was entitled to funeral benefits from the government. A casualty assistance officer forwarded all of the information to Navy Personnel Command, which handles mortuary claims for the Marines.

Several weeks went by, then months, and the bill from Kerr Brothers Funeral Home and Lexington Cemetery went unpaid.

"I'm one of these I hate owing money. And it went on two or three months and we still hadn't heard anything, went another month and we started making phone calls."

Phone calls all the way up through the chain of Command with the Navy, until Puckett finally got to this man: Mark Ward at the Pentagon.

"I mean there were a lot of things that should have been done a lot better."

Ward is Senior Program Manager for Casualty and Mortuary Affairs for the Department of Defense.

"When this particular case came to light, and we started doing all the necessary research to figure out what exactly happened, then we started to identify where these gaps in the process existed.

A review of mortuary claim processing times through documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show the Air Force averaging 55 days, the Army 65 days, and the Navy and Marines 88 days to pay for funeral expenses. For the Pucketts, it took nearly eight months.

"It's not an excuse, but it was something that we weren't aware of, at least at the headquarters level, and we have taken corrective actions to fix those," says Ward.

A major issue in the Puckett case was that the name of the funeral home listed on the forms, Kerr Brothers, did not match the business name filed with the IRS, Kerr Brothers LLC. When a computer program rejected the claim, there was not proper oversight to catch the problem.

All military service branches now have a goal of completing mortuary claims within 30 days of the funeral. Ward says increased training and staffing has helped; Navy Personnel Command is now averaging around 33 days.

Tommy Puckett says he hopes no family has to go through what his did.

"Losing your child is like somebody just ripped a big hole in your heart. And that hole will never heal. But I think edges will kind of smooth a little."

To gauge the effectiveness of the mortuary affairs overhaul, this month the Department of Defense will begin surveying the families of deceased service members whose claims have been processed since the changes were implemented.