Tragic drowning of San Diego Marine leads to lawsuit for benefits

The tragic 2019 drowning death of Marine Master Sgt. Jeff Briar off the San Diego coast has sparked a legal battle.

Briar drowned attempting to rescue two children caught in the rip current near San Diego. At the time of his death Jeff Briar was a member of Headquarters Battalion, Tactical Training Exercise Control Group, in Twentynine Palms, California.

While the two did not have a marriage license prior to the ceremony, Jennifer Crowley, now Jennifer Briar, maintains he was at the beach that day for their wedding ceremony.

Jeff Briar’s mother, Debbie Robinson, however, previously told Marine Corps Times that the ceremony was not a wedding but something closer to a promise ceremony, emphasizing that the couple did not have a marriage license.

The Marine’s parents have not responded Marines Corps Times’ requests for further comments.

Eventually the Supreme Court of the State of California issued an order establishing that Briar and Crowley were legally married as of Sept. 22, 2019.

Because of the lack of marriage license, Briar’s parents were treated as next of kin by the Marine Corps, giving them the ability to decide on his burial and ultimately led to them receiving the Marine’s Servicemember’s Group Life Insurance benefits, also known as SGLI.

The first legal fight was over Briar’s final resting spot.

His parents requested he be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, while Jennifer Briar said his final wishes were that he be cremated.

He was eventually cremated and his ashes were split between his parents and his widow, Jennifer Briar told Marine Corps Times in mid-March.

On March 19, Jennifer Briar filed a lawsuit against the Marine Corps attempting to claim the Marine’s SGLI and have the Marine Corps enroll her into the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System, or DEERS.

“The Marine Corps unconstitutionally refused to recognize Mrs. Briar’s marriage to Mr. Briar,” the lawsuit reads.

“The Marine Corps’ refusal to enter Mrs. Briar into DEERS, to certify and process her SGLI paperwork, and to otherwise recognize her as MSgt Briar’s spouse and afford her any of the benefits to which a military spouse is entitled, based on the conclusion that she and MSgt Briar were not married, is unconstitutional,” it adds.

The Marine Corps has no comment on the case due to “pending litigation,” said Yvonne Carlock, a spokeswoman for Marine Corps Manpower and Reserve Affairs.

“This is a unique case because outside of TSGLI (Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance Traumatic Injury Protection), Christopher Brochu, a lawyer who represents service members who make insurance claims, told Marine Corps Times on Thursday. “Most SGLI litigation involves Prudential, not the Marine Corps.”

Jennifer Briar told Marine Corps Times that her husband wanted her to be a stay-at-home mother, so when he died and she did not receive his benefits she was immediately put in a difficult financial position.

“I had to uproot my children from California to move to North Carolina, to be with my daughter and her husband who was an active-duty Marine, it’s just been very difficult,” she said.

If she is given access to the $400,000 SGLI payout, Jennifer Briar said she would use it to invest in her children’s future.

Jennifer Briar’s lawyer, Antoinette Quinn O’Neill, said filing the lawsuit was a last resort after repeated inaction by the Marine Corps.

“Our hope is … a lawyer is going to look at this and say, ‘Yes they are clearly married we have no reason not to put her into the system and recognize her as a spouse’ and it can just be settled without having to go through anything further,” the lawyer told Marine Corps Times in a phone interview.