Retired Lt. Col. Todd Ernst believes the notion of “taking care of the military family” starts with taking care of your fellow Airmen. At a ceremony here Feb. 13, Ernst was recognized for doing just that.
His efforts to help a fallen airman’s family led to a legislative change that ensures the more than 700,000 currently serving Reserve and Guard personnel and their families will receive survivor benefits equal to those provided to the surviving families of active duty service members.
While on active duty in 2003, Ernst flew alongside Maj. Pete “Oly” Jahns, a Reserve instructor pilot for the 100th Flying Training Squadron, which preceded the 39th FTS. Jahns perished on March 19, 2003 in a T-38 crash during a routine training flight at JBSA-Randolph.
Ernst participated in the missing man formation for Jahns’ memorial and subsequently forged a strong friendship with the Jahns family. The bond between Ernst and the family grew when Ernst returned to JBSA-Randolph in 2007 as a reservist with the 39th FTS. When Ms. Jahns received news in early 2012 that there would be significant changes to her survivor benefit payments, Ernst was one of the first people she contacted.
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Todd Ernst (L) receives The Seven Seals Award from Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) from Navy Capt. Steve Knight (R) during a ceremony on Feb. 13 at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas to honor him for his efforts to bring about the legislative change that now ensures families of Reserve and Guard service members receive the same survivor benefits as active duty service members. (Air Force photo by Joel Martinez, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph Public Affairs)
Jahns received one of 95 letters sent to surviving family members stating that a “significant error” had been made when accounting for their loved ones’ administrative pay status at the time of death. As a result, survivor benefit payments the families had relied on for years were drastically lowered and, in many cases, stopped altogether.
Ernst learned there was a differentiation in survivor benefit payments based on whether the member was on “active duty” or “inactive duty training” (IDT) status. Maj. Jahns was on IDT status when he perished and now his family was caught in the middle of a legislative provision in the survivor benefit program. The survivor benefits payments they had been receiving for nine years were cut to align with the existing benefit payment policy.
This policy did not just affect the Jahns family; it had implications for the families of all Guard and Reserve airmen that perform their missions on IDT status. Ernst’s empathy and passion propelled him to take action. He spent the next five years committed to ensuring equal benefits for equal sacrifice.
“Every day, teams of Active and Reserve Component Airmen work together to accomplish the Air Force mission,” said John Fedrigo, deputy assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Reserve Affairs and Airman Readiness. “When an airman makes the ultimate sacrifice, that airman and his or her family should be properly cared for and should receive the benefits they deserve. Their benefits should not be based on the status they happen to be in on that given day.”
As a citizen airman, Ernst began his efforts by briefing his own military chain of the inequity between duty statuses and writing background papers. He personally briefed numerous committees and personnel including the Reserve Forces Policy Board, the Air Forces Policy Committee, the Chief of the National Guard Bureau, the Air Force Reserve commander and the Air Force Chief of Staff.
In his capacity as a private citizen, Ernst engaged numerous congressional offices as well as key Veteran Service Organizations. He also developed and maintained, 95letters.com, a website to serve as an ongoing reference for both congressional and defense staff, as well as the affected families.
Ernst maximized his rights as both a military member and a private citizen, and his combined efforts were rewarded on Dec. 23, 2016, when President Obama signed into law the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act that, in part, revised the Reserve and Guard survivor benefits policies.
The NDAA removed the disparity in survivor benefits between active duty members and Guard or Reserve members who perish while serving in IDT status. Now the survivors of all service members who perish while serving their country will receive equal survivor benefits. Additionally, the revised law will now allow airmen on inactive duty status to be buried in a National Cemetery if they perish while performing the mission.
Fedrigo explained that, “with this change in legislation passed in the Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act we corrected an inequity in survivor benefits that existed between the various duty statuses that Reserve Component Airmen participate in.”
“I’m just thankful to have played a role along with a great team of others in ending this disparity in benefits for our fellow military families who have sacrificed so much,” Ernst said. “This is truly what it looks like when the military family steps up to take care of each other.”
As a token of appreciation for all of Ernst’s efforts that led to this change in the current NDAA, Fedrigo presented him a letter of thanks from Daniel Sitterly, principal deputy assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force for Manpower and Reserve Affairs. Ernst also received The Seven Seals Award from Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve or ESGR from Navy Capt. Steve Knight.
“I am proud of my Air Force team and proud of service members such as Lt. Col. Todd Ernst who brought this inequity to our attention and who fought valiantly to right this wrong,” said Fedrigo. “It is the least we can do for the men and women who put their lives on the line for our protection.”
By Kristal Gault, 340th Flying Training Group Public Affairs / Published February 17, 2017