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Ocean catastrophe leaves family starting over.

All gone--in an instant. The gigantic wave that struck the MV Mokihana in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in December erased the personal possessions of a score of service members.

Twenty-six containers were washed overboard, eight of them containing full and partial shipments of a service member's personal property. Personal papers, photographs, furniture, and clothing were gone in a split second.

Lt. Cmdr. John Wheeler did not hear about the Dec. 12 incident until after Christmas.

Wheeler and his family had just finished a two-and-a-half year tour with a Navy helicopter squadron on Guam. They were looking forward to getting back to the "mainland" life in California. Wheeler is on orders to the Defense Language Institute, in Monterey, Calif., before beginning his next tour at the Canadian War College, in Toronto.

When they phoned the Navy Supply Department, they were told their personal possessions had disappeared.

"I considered it a slim chance that I would lose my things," said Wheeler, 41. "You just don't imagine what's the worst that can happen.

"As a service member, you can never call anywhere your home, but that favorite couch, living room set or framed photo on the wall are yours wherever you go. When they're gone, it feels as though you've lost your identity."

Wheeler received limited information as to what had happened.

"All I got were copies of faxes from the ship's master to his company headquarters, and from the company to military authority, saying the containers were gone and they were sorry," said Wheeler. "That was it. Very little detail.

"I find that troubling."

While claims settlements will replace the furniture, there is no replacement for many of the personal items lost.

Wheeler had used his Home of Record Move to ship many personal items from his home in Boston to Guam. In such a move, a service member moves all his possessions from his origin point home.

"I had things from my childhood, including items we would eventually move into our new home."

In addition, letters from Wheeler's deceased mother-in-law to his wife, wedding and family photos, and a 15-year military history of plaques and mementos from around the world were among the items that sank forever from the Mokihana.

Also lost were home furnishings collected throughout their five-year marriage as they planned the purchase of a new home.

"It's not like we just went into K-Mart and bought furniture overnight. We collected items special to us for our future."

With limited and incomplete information, Wheeler was left to assume that his loss was a result of negligence on the part of the shipper. He was unaware of the giant wave that had hit the Mokihama.

That all changed when Wheeler opened the January issue of "Translog" and saw the devastated stack of containers on the Mokihana. He received the magazine from a friend in Guam, who had happened to come across it in a waiting room.

"I was shocked," said Wheeler. "Only when I read your article did I find out how this even happened.

"I felt tremendously unsupported. We were devastated not only because we trusted our lifetime possessions to a routine shipment, but that we are on very short-term Permanent Change of Station orders here for six months before we leave the country.

"Everyone here has been helpful, but it appears that the system is not designed to expedite catastrophic, total-loss customers. The administrative burden in the claims process is considerable."

The process has been slowed down by the need to identify every book, CD and piece of clothing. Upon review, adjusters will depreciate the value of the items to determine a settlement figure.

"Because of this, it will never be possible to have the same items again," said Wheeler. "This doesn't account for treasured photographs, paintings and media at all."

Insurance Claims

Although the process of getting their lives back together has been a challenge for the Wheelers, they understand that Acts of God occur.

Wheeler immediately submitted a claim on a personal property insurance policy that the family had with United Service Automobile Association.

An initial $2,000 advance from this policy enabled the Wheelers to buy a crib for their son, a bed and dishes. The lieutenant commander's salary and credit cards provided other needed personal items.

"We had to borrow cushions from the Army Relief Pack to sleep on. There is only so much $2,000 can buy when you've lost everything, but at least it's a start.

"We're almost up to our credit card limit."

As of March, the Wheelers have received their $35,000 policy maximum from USAA and a payment from a personal article floater policy for a few smaller items.

"We had to use the final settlement from USAA to pay off our debt," said Wheeler. "Now we're starting our claim with the government, because you have to fully resolve your private insurance claim first.

"I thought it would be a faster process, but it's not. I refused to cash in my IRA fund or sell my car to buy furniture. I can't imagine how this would feel for a junior enlisted with a family. With a smaller paycheck, they wouldn't have that luxury. Any cash we saved in Guam that was meant to help us afford a few vacations here in California, or a better lifestyle in Toronto, is gone.

"We spend our weekends filling out paperwork."

The biggest impact for the Wheeler family was the lack of proper information getting to the affected member.

"I think this could have been handled better," said Wheeler. "There was nothing available to me at the time that indicated higher authority in my service had been advised and had a chance to respond to our crisis beyond the routine claims process we use when an item or two gets damaged in a move.

"Those that have filed those claims know it can be a long process to resolve. We were paralyzed with the thought that this claim could take months to resolve."

Navy Assistance

Having spent two months pursuing his insurance carrier claims, Wheeler is now filing a claim through the Navy.

After reading about the shipping mishap in "Translog," Wheeler sent an e-mail to the MTMC Command Affairs Office--where it was quickly forwarded to MTMC's top officials.

Navy Headquarters in Virginia contacted Wheeler.

"They promise to ensure that my claim is settled quickly," said Wheeler. "I am impressed with the Navy's response. We have been assigned specific individuals who will personally see our claim through the process.

"They are concerned, available and accessible when we have questions about our claim items. I believe that kind of customer support keeps people in the Navy. I feel that they will handle my remaining claim better and faster than USAA did.

"We're looking forward to not living paycheck to paycheck in the future."

The Navy understands and wants to help affected service members' deal with damage or loss claims as quickly and as fairly as possible, said Petty Officer Steve Neal, Claims office, Office of the Judge Advocate General, Washington Navy Yard.

"Service members must use their own insurance before making a loss claim," said Neal.

"The claims process normally takes about two to three weeks, from the time the member submits his paperwork to cutting the check."

When household goods sustain damage or loss, said Neal, the carrier or the Navy notifies the affected members. Depending upon the situation, full details of the loss may not be provided.

"Acts of God are rare, but they do happen," said Neal.

The future

The Military Traffic Management Command is well aware of deficiencies in the current personal property moving program, said Col. Nonie Cabana, Deputy Chief of Staff for Passenger & Personal Property.

"Several pilots are under way to improve the existing program," said Cabana. "Until the pilots can be fully evaluated, we want to improve our existing moving program with Task Force Fix--made up of some of our best people and also key members of the moving industry.

The pilot programs seek to streamline the claims process and provide full-replacement value for lost or damaged property.

These programs include the Navy's Sailor Arranged Move initiative, the Department of Defense's Full Service Moving Project, and the MTMC Reengineering Pilot. Currently, the programs are available at selected test sites only.

The models offer full-replacement value versus depreciated value insurance, and increases the maximum liability claim from $40,000 to more than $70,000. The services are expected to be able to fund improvement initiatives by fiscal year 2003.

U.S. Transportation Command is planning to evaluate each program choosing the most successful one and supporting its overall implementation by fiscal year 2004.
COPYRIGHT 2001 U.S. Military Traffic Management Command
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Galery, Leesha A.
Publication:Translog
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2001
Words:1447
Previous Article:Gateway to the world.
Next Article:Transportation veteran becomes MTMC's top NCO.
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