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California and the West

Dead Soldier's Family Will Get Benefits

Military: Army had ruled guardsman whose body was found in Germany a deserter, but doubts were raised about his mental state.

July 16, 1998|H.G. REZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Army has reversed itself and reinstated benefits to the widow and three young children of a dead California National Guard soldier it had previously said was a deserter.

Army and National Guard officials said this week that Fatima O'Neal, who said she was forced onto welfare a year ago after her husband's disappearance, will receive all benefits, including $200,000 in life insurance, due the widow of any soldier who dies on active duty. Army spokesman Lt. Col. Guy Shields said the family has already received $6,000 in recent days to pay for funeral expenses for Spec. Mason Jacques Karl O'Neal.

O'Neal, 32, of Sunnyvale, disappeared in Germany on July 17, 1997. His body was discovered one month ago today near the Grafenwoehr Army Base, where he was stationed. Army officials said his hands were bound in front of him and his fatigue jacket was tied around his neck. The Army's death certificate lists the cause of death as suicide, but others say it remains a mystery.

The Army's decision to reinstate benefits to O'Neal's family marks a significant shift in the service's earlier stance. O'Neal was branded a deserter 30 days after he disappeared, and the Army stopped all pay and benefits to his family. The Army had also demanded that Fatima O'Neal return $21,000 that officials said she was not entitled to because they deemed her husband a deserter. National Guard officials argued he was beset by psychological problems when he vanished and should have been considered disabled.

Without her husband's income, Fatima O'Neal and her three young children--ages 5, 2 and 18 months--began receiving welfare assistance last year.

National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Warren Alberts that Fatima O'Neal and her family will soon receive free medical and dental care, commissary privileges and the use of recreational facilities at any U.S. military base and overnight stays in military housing while traveling.

O'Neal's disappearance sparked a bitter disagreement between the National Guard and the Army that led to several angry meetings in Washington about O'Neal's case.

In April, the Army reopened its investigation of O'Neal's disappearance after The Times reported discrepancies in the case. An Army spokesman admitted then that "mistakes were made that created confusion" in the first investigation. O'Neal's body was recovered before the results of the second investigation were made public.

On Friday, National Guard officials said the Army's decision to grant benefits to O'Neal's family proved that they were correct in arguing that the soldier was suffering from mental illness when he disappeared. According to Army investigators, O'Neal ran away while being escorted to a base clinic for observation.

"The bottom line is the Army is providing benefits to Mrs. O'Neal as though Mason O'Neal was an honorable soldier, not a deserter. We're very happy for that," Alberts said.

The Army released a brief statement last week, admitting again that mistakes were made in its investigation of O'Neal's disappearance and crediting both National Guard and Army officials with correcting the problem.

"People are the Army's first priority. Our Army is also governed by laws and regulations. Throughout this ordeal, regardless of any missteps, our system exercised a series of checks and balances. Although nothing can compensate a family for the loss of a loved one, the efforts of soldiers, both National Guard and [Army], ultimately assured the [O'Neal] family's just entitlements. We all share in the loss of our fellow soldier," said a statement read by Shields.

In the statement, the Army did not rescind earlier statements that O'Neal had deserted. But they now list O'Neal's date of death as July 31, 1997, two weeks after he disappeared, meaning that he technically did not desert his unit and was instead missing. A serviceman who is absent without leave is declared a deserter after 30 days. The Army did not give a reason as to how it determined that O'Neal died on July 31, given there were no eyewitnesses.

O'Neal was among 125 soldiers with the 649th Military Police Company of the California National Guard sent to Germany in January 1997 as part of the U.S. peacekeeping force in Bosnia.

In a recent interview, Fatima O'Neal said she was grateful for the Army's decision to reinstate benefits to her family. However, she was still bitter over the treatment she received from military officials after her husband disappeared.

She said her constant requests for information about her missing husband were ignored by both the Army and the National Guard for six months.

Her husband's body was returned July 3, but Fatima O'Neal said she is still waiting for answers about how he died. She refuses to bury him until the Army explains the circumstances surrounding his death.

In their last telephone conversation, on July 14, 1997, Fatima O'Neal said her husband told her he believed "he was in danger and that somebody was out to get him."

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