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Soldier to be buried in Oklahoma after family dispute

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ A bitter custody battle between divorced parents over the last resting place for a son killed in Iraq ended when a judge ruled the soldier's remains would be sent to his father for burial in Oklahoma.

Army Staff Sgt. Jason Hendrix grew up in Watsonville with his mother, but finished his last two years of high school while living with his father in Oklahoma. Each parent filed court motions last month to determine who gets custody of his remains.

The dispute, which was resolved Wednesday, raised concerns about next-of-kin policies and funeral planning for military personnel.

After a roadside bomb killed Hendrix on Feb. 16 near the Iraqi city of Ramadi, the Army sent his body to the central California town where Hendrix was born and his mother, Renee Amick, and stepfather live.

The day after the remains arrived in California, Hendrix's father, an airline mechanic at Tulsa International Airport who divorced Amick 14 years ago, appealed and asked to have his son's body shipped to Claremore, Okla. Russell Hendrix has lived in Oklahoma since the late 1980s and wanted his son buried in a civilian cemetery next to his grandfather, a former Marine.

Based on a little-known policy that often grants the remains of military personnel to the eldest surviving parent, the Defense Department reversed its decision and planned to ship the body to Oklahoma _ until Amick filed a temporary restraining order to keep the body in California.

Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge Robert Yonts dissolved the restraining order Wednesday and granted custody of the body to Russell Hendrix. Yonts said he ``respected'' the Army's decision and would abide by the military's next-of-kin policy.

According to Defense Department rules, spouses of slain service members have first claim to the remains. If the victim was not married, the body goes to natural and adopted children who are over 18 in age order.

If the victim has no children, remains go to parents in order of seniority, unless one parent was granted sole legal custody ``by reason of a court decree or statutory provision.''

Jason Hendrix was not married and had no children. Amick, 45, had custody immediately following the separation in 1989, but Russell Hendrix, 48, won custody in the final divorce decree of 1991.

The Defense Department would not comment on the case.

Amick's attorney said the mother disagreed with the ruling but wouldn't appeal because the monthlong battle has already ``lasted too long.''

``My client is deeply disappointed by the court's ruling,'' Mike Barsi said. ``But in some ways she's relieved that her son can now be laid to rest, and she's comforted by the thought he's now in God's hands.''

Sharon Cole Jones, who represented Russell Hendrix, said the ruling preserves what the father believes were his son's wishes. Jones drove with Russell Hendrix and his other son, Justin, more than 30 hours from Oklahoma to central California to be at the hearing in Santa Cruz.

``There's no hard feelings. My client understands and respects the emotions that a grieving mother would have,'' Jones said. ``The main thrust was to be true to Jason and to be true to what we believe he wanted _ to be at home and next to his grandfather.''

Jason Hendrix's body will be flown to Oklahoma after attorneys finish paperwork and the Pentagon approves the changes, possibly as early as Thursday. The mother's family is planning a memorial service in Watsonville.

The Hendrix's dispute isn't unique, given the nation's high divorce rate and custody battles.

Earlier this year, parents clashed over where to bury Lance Cpl. Nicholas H. Anderson, 19, who was killed during an insurgent attack in Iraq. The military sent the body to Anderson's father in Ventura. The decision devastated the Marine's mother, who lives in Las Vegas and expected to bury the body in Nevada, where her son spent most of his childhood and graduated from high school.

Jason Hendrix's relatives are still searching for a will, but so far they haven't found one. He officially designated his brother, Justin, who lives in Owasso, Okla., to receive a ``death gratuity'' the Army gives to help pay for funerals.

Rep. Sam Farr, who represents Renee Amick's district, proposed last month that Hendrix be buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, but the father's family refused.
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