Almost 6 yrs. would pass before my spouse's illness and subsequent death would be honored as "line of duty", allowing my soul to finally rest and journey of healing to begin. Quitting was never an option, even after my heart attack. It would have been quitting on Chris and everything he had devoted his entire life to.
At age 41 ATSAIC Christopher "Chris" Smith, U.S. Secret Service, had served 18 yrs. in Federal Law Enforcement, having bought back his military time, and planned to retire with "30 yrs." and 2 Masters' Degrees at age 49. Our private joke was, "...the real money will come then...enough to cover Caitlin's grad school..."
The call reverberated thru the Field Office, "One of the runners is down." There were only 5 or 6 'runners' out of 55+ agents. He was the fittest of the fit at 6'3", 195 lbs., 10.5% body fat and "Excellent" scores on every parameter of the agency's quarterly fitness test for 16 out of 17 years. How could this possibly happen?
On Good Friday, 3/25/2005, following a customary 3 mile jog, he apologized to ladies in the elevator for being "sweaty and rank", and proceeded to the rear where he squatted down to rest. When the elevator arrived on the 31st floor Chris didn't rise to exit and failed to respond to verbal cues. So a female tapped his shoulder and he fell over. He had suffered a complete cardiac arrest which deprived his brain of oxygen for several minutes resulting in severe anoxic/hypoxic brain injury.
Comatose and with no sign of life present, Chris was taken off the ventilator 17 days later, with all expectations of imminent death. God had other plans. Chris breathed on his own. After 3 months of hospitalization Caitlin (our 13 yr. old daughter) and I chose life with feeding tube and tracheostomy intact and brought Dad home, where he belonged. Within 3 months he opened both eyes, turned his head, and was weaned from his trach, breathing entirely on his own. Yet, he remained clinically comatose and able to move only his head until a 2nd heart attack took him home, 33 months and 2 days later on 12/27/2007. There were times we knew Dad was in there and many, many times he responded miraculously to the sound and presence of his baby girl. We were still a family. He was still Dad. And he was exactly where he belonged. Every minute of every hour of every day with this beautiful man was a gift from God, and never a blessing to be taken for granted.
The battle with the Dept. of Justice under The Hometown Heroes Act/Public Safety Officers' Benefits' Act (PSOB) began in Dec. 2005 and ended in Nov. 2011. If the initial claim for CATASTROPHIC BENEFITS had been approved the only monetary gain would have been our daughter's eligibility to apply for law enforcement based scholarships and up to $900.00 per month in tuition assistance from DOJ. Chris was still alive, but had sustained "Catastrophic Injuries". We were not eligible to receive any "lump sum" benefit award, ever. Furthermore, I didn't care. My #1 goal was to honor my husband's service, and #2 was scholarship eligibility. I read the rules, knew that heart attack and stroke victims were given a hard time, yada, yada, yada.... However, nothing could have prepared me for the gutter my family was about to be dragged thru for almost 6 years. I had been a public servant, issued thousands of warrants, put thousands in jail, lost too many friends "in the line of duty", mourned at their funerals, grieved with their widows, and married the finest man I had ever known. To have a clerk flippantly order me to submit a 3rd 'Certified Death Certificate' just drove another nail in his coffin. Sure, COPS is a great organization if it's a slam dunk "line of duty death", especially with tons of media coverage. 18 months after my initial "Catastrophic Claim" was filed Chris died. Initially DOJ advised that I DID NOT need to file another claim, only to reverse that 7 months later, stating I had to start from scratch, submit all new documentation, and file a "Death Claim". I 'Googled' searching for someone to help me and learned about the COPS organization. I called the Georgia representative who seemed eager to bring me the necessary forms and assist me in filling them out. A week later all communications ceased. I couldn't get a return phone call, e-mail, etc.. I then contacted the National COPS Office, several times, to be told each time, ".. someone will get back with you.' I couldn't understand what the problem was! They must have gotten tired of my monthly calls. Finally, someone was gutsy enough to answer my pleas for help truthfully (a female whom I've since met and thanked) and said, "Mrs. Smith, until the DOJ formally approves your husband's death as line of duty you are not eligible for any of our services and we are not allowed to help you..." I had inquired specifically about grief support meetings as my insurance would not cover that, and was told I was not allowed to attend anything sponsored by COPS. The same song and dance applied to most everything concerning myself and my child. It didn't matter that I Permanently Disabled, a former Magistrate and Probation/Parole Officer or that Chris was an Eagle Scout, Air Force Veteran, NC State Trooper, Federal Agent, etc..., or that my kid was an academic all star, athlete, musician, and suffered from debilitating auto-immune disease(s).... We were shut out and shut down until the Federal Dept. of Justice waved the magic wand. The process I began when she was in the 8th grade wasn't approved until she was a rising junior in college. Research found that 95% of LEO scholarship eligibility is at the entering freshman level. If anyone is privy otherwise, please advise.
Thank God for my family of Marines and the Marine Corps Law Enforcement Foundation. They found Chris' sacrifice honorable and my daughter worthy. Caitlin was awarded a scholarship that covered most of one year and is eligible to apply again this year.
Both The National Fallen Firefighters' Assoc. and The Federal Law Enforcement Officers' Assoc. (FLEOA) offered to file the "Appeal" when my 2nd claim, the Death Claim, was "Denied". FLEOA handled the long, drawn out case and won approval in Nov. 2011. The National Law Enforcement Officers' Memorial Commission subsequently approved his death as "line of duty" and therefore eligible for engraving on The National Memorial Wall in December 2011. We attended National Police Week in May 2012. We were honored to be in attendance at US Secret Service Headquarters annual Memorial Ceremony when Chris' name was the 36th added the their Wall of Honor and at FLETC, Glynco, GA on May 31, 2012 when Chris' name was also honored there. This was a special day as it would have been Chris' 49th birthday, and the year he had planned to retire.
The battle was won, but not without scars, bruises, and a visible toll taken. No one should suffer this type of ugliness and disrespect from a public agency of the United States, esp. when the one we loved chose to protect and defend the least among us and the very democracy that defines us. Hopefully, in some small way, my claim has cleared some brush off the path for the next Public Safety Officer who suffers a heart attack or stroke "in the line of duty". Or maybe someone reading this will notice a symptom, a pattern, or take "stress" seriously at just the right time. Stress kills just as fast as a speeding bullet or blazing fire. Respect it, treat it, ask for help.