Air Force Maj. Matthew Checketts and his wife Jessica felt so strongly about the need for service members to be able to take leave to grieve the loss of a child that they wrote a letter to members of Congress.
Those lawmakers listened, and have introduced bills that would amend current military leave policy so that pre-approved parental leave is not terminated in the event of a child’s death. The bills are named for their daughter Elaine Checketts, who died on Nov. 5, two days after she was born.
The proposals don’t grant extra time; they simply would allow service members to take their pre-approved parental leave in the case of a child’s death.
Checketts was allowed 21 days of parental leave after the birth of his child. But according to an Air Force instruction, that leave is terminated upon the death of a child. Even so, his commander allowed him to take those full 21 days of leave, said Checketts, a prosthodontist stationed with the 59th Medical Wing at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. It’s also DoD policy that parental leave is terminated upon the death of a child, noted Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill.
“I was blessed my commander gave me that, but every commander is different,” Checketts said. “The policy says the leave is terminated. … He granted that extra time that he technically didn’t have to do.”
A bill was introduced June 5 by Reps. Will Hurd, R-Texas, and Susan Davis, D-Calif., in the House — a companion bill to one introduced in the Senate May 20 by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas and Duckworth. “We ask our military to do so much for this nation, but returning to work the day after their child passes should have never been on that list,” said Cornyn.
“My wife and I decided to write the letter to our representatives because we felt it was our responsibility to do something to try and give everyone the same opportunity that I had.”
He needed the time to help his wife recover physically from the traumatic birth, to arrange for the burial of their daughter, and to travel to Arizona for the burial. The Checketts’ five sons needed his attention and help, too, he said. “They were looking forward to having a little sister,” he said. And he was dealing with his own profound grief.
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“Before babies are even born, we create memories in our heads, thinking of the experiences we’ll have with that baby in the future,” he said. His sons experienced that, too.
“I have a hard time imagining how I could have coped well,” he said, without those extra days. “This is going to be a lifelong recovery. My wife and I will have a proverbial hole in our hearts,” but getting through that initial trauma was important, he said.
“The tragic loss of a child creates an immeasurable amount of pain for families, and, just like any other American family, our men and women in uniform should have the time to grieve the loss of their child,” Hurd said.
About Karen Jowers
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book “A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families.” She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.