Bank’s inaction compounds grief for family of Navy hospitalman killed in Afghanistan

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Just days after their son was killed by a Taliban rocket while serving in Afghanistan, Steve and Joy Retmier went to Downey Savings and Loan in Hemet to deposit two government bereavement checks to help pay for his funeral.

But once inside, they said, a teller put a hold on the checks for 10 days until they could be authenticated. The funeral was in five days.

The family asked the bank to check with the military and produced newspaper stories describing Navy Hospitalman Marc Retmier’s death -- the 500th Californian killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. A military recruiter who knew 19-year-old Retmier also verified the story. Downey wouldn’t budge.

“I don’t understand how they could do this to a fallen hero and his family who were experiencing so much pain and still are,” Joy Retmier said.

The family eventually deposited the $50,000 checks into a local credit union and used $15,000 to pay funeral costs. They also hired well-known attorney Gloria Allred.

Allred filed a complaint Wednesday with the Office of Thrift Supervision, calling for an investigation into Downey’s actions and asking for reforms, including a hotline that could verify similar checks in less than 30 minutes.

“Joy Retmier was literally crying in the bank,” Allred said. “Not only did she lose her child, now how is she going to afford to bury him? When Marc’s grandfather went to the bank to show the newspaper article, he gets told to leave. I am shocked that this was handled so insensitively.”

She said that the parents were treated “like criminals” and that at least one other family had faced a similar battle with its bank.

“This is not the intent of the government when they issue these checks; the checks are designed to help comfort the family, not add stress and worry,” she said. “We want an investigation, and if this is a policy, we want to change it or make an exception so parents can cash these checks in 30 minutes.”

Downey issued a statement Thursday calling Retmier “a brave soldier from our local community” but said the check hold policy “conforms with federal banking standards and industry practices.” The bank said the funds would have been released as soon as they were verified.

According to regulations from the Office of Thrift Supervision, U.S. Treasury checks like those issued the Retmiers “must receive next-day availability,” though the regulations allow extended holds under certain circumstances.

William Ruberry, spokesman for the office, said officials were still gathering the facts.

“I am sure every institution has their own procedures, but they have to abide by the regulations,” he said.

Retmier died June 18 after his vehicle was hit by a rocket in Paktia province in Afghanistan. As the 500th Californian to die, he served as a grim milestone and testimony to the toll that the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has taken locally. He was also the seventh to die from Hemet to die.

The complaint against Downey includes notes from such family members as Dale Powers, Retmier’s grandfather, who was a baby-sitter to the boy for years.

“I felt the bank’s refusal to cash the bereavement check showed disrespect to my grandson and my family,” wrote Powers, a Korean War veteran. “Even though I showed them a photo from the newspaper of my daughter, Marc’s mother, crying over his loss, they still refused to cash it before the funeral. I hope they will never make anyone else suffer what we had to endure because of their insensitivity to us.”

Retmier, who loved the ocean, was buried June 25 beside his uncle in a plot overlooking the sea in Corona del Mar.