I had to laugh when I politely declined the kind offer from 9-year-old Kayla Jaenke to join in the game she was playing. She and her little cousin were in the middle of a heated contest of "Mud Baseball." I'm not sure what the rules were, but if the objective was to become covered in black Iowa mud then Kayla was surely winning. Her grandmother Susan Jaenke smiled and said that as long as her washing machine and shower still work, then she's more than happy to encourage Kayla's tomboyish fun.
"She's just like her mother," she said.
Kayla probably hears that a lot. Her long blonde curls and light blue eyes are reminiscent of her mother, Jaime Jaenke, who grew up riding and caring for horses in Iowa City. She was a young mother and was married briefly. She helped build a stable where she boarded horses and one day planned to provide therapy to disabled children. Even as she deployed to Iraq with her unit of Navy Seabees, Jaime was sending checks home to take care of Kayla and keep the stables operating. Those checks stopped in June when Jaime was killed by a roadside bomb.
Kayla doesn't like to talk about her feelings about losing her mother. But she's happy to tell you how her mom taught her to care for the horses, something she does everyday. She also smiles warmly when she shows off the dress her mom sent her from Iraq. Her grandmother's house seems to be full of love but it is a troubled home.
Kayla's grandmother shakes her head when she tries to make sense of the law that keeps her from collecting Jaime's $100,000 death benefit from the military. It is money Jaime thought she was leaving behind to pay for her daughter's upbringing, as she spelled out in a letter shortly before she deployed. Instead, the death benefit sits in a trust that Kayla can't touch until she's 18. In the meantime, the roof is leaking, the horses need to be fed, the mortgage needs to be paid and her grandmother can't make ends meet.
Susan Jaenke summed up the situation thusly: "I'm a mother without a daughter. I've got a daughter without a mother. And now, we don't have a future."
The Jaenke's situation is not a common one. Still, Rep. Tom Latham of Iowa says he would like to change the law governing death benefits to let them be accountable to the wishes of the individual service person. And he wants to make the change retroactive.