- The Washington Times - Monday, January 17, 2005

Several senators are proposing increasing the amount of money paid to the family of a military service member who dies in combat, raising the issue of what a grateful nation owes those who have given their lives in the service of their country.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, are sponsoring a bill to increase the instant death gratuity payment for troops killed in combat zones from $12,420 to $100,000. The bill also calls for raising the payout from the Serviceman’s Group Life Insurance (SGLI) to $400,000 from the current $250,000.

Virginia Republican Sen. George Allen has a proposal of his own simply to raise the death gratuity to $100,000, and several other senators have said they are interested in other bills to help families of troops killed while serving. The Sessions-Lieberman bill will be introduced when Congress reconvenes after the presidential inauguration.

“Every soldier who goes into harm’s way needs to know that if something happens to him or her, his family will be well taken care of. I know the American people share that view,” Mr. Sessions said. “This is a large raising of the death benefits, but it’s well within reason, and we’re in a time in which $100,000 is not near what it used to be. But that’s a good step forward for the basic death benefit.”

Right now, any member of the active duty, National Guard or Reserve forces who dies in combat receives a lump-sum payment of $12,420, available within two or three days, that can help cover immediate expenses. That dollar figure was raised from $6,000 in the last defense-authorization bill.

Many members of the armed services pay $20 a month for life insurance coverage of $250,000. The Sessions-Lieberman bill would boost that maximum coverage to $400,000 and have the government pay for the first $150,000 of coverage for troops in a combat zone.

D. Michael Duggan, deputy director for national security and foreign relations for the American Legion, said they support the increases, particularly in the lump-sum benefit.

“A lot of families are finding out $12,000 is not enough, but how much more?” he said. “The cost of a funeral is higher, plus other unpaid bills which the family — i.e., widows, grieving widows — have to pay up. How are they going to pay the immediate rent? How are they going to pay groceries? They need that money right away, in a lump sum.”

But he said balancing the practical question of how much a family needs and the philosophical question of how much a family is owed for their sacrifice is one for the lawmakers.

“You’re trying to get an appropriate expression, and I think there probably has to be some anecdotal evidence that would support an increase,” he said. “If either one of the senators are convinced based on anecdotal evidence this is what it should be, then fine. It’s got to be somewhere above what we’re giving right now.”

Mr. Allen said from his standpoint, “$12,000 is just paltry. It’s almost insulting.” He said the $100,000 level struck him as right, based on what he’s seen for firefighters and police officers, who he said often have death gratuities of $50,000 or $100,000.

“In my view, there is no dollar amount that we owe them. How do you put a price on freedom and liberty?” he said. “If you said $500,000 or you said $75,625, there is no way of quantifying it. It seemed to me to be an appropriate amount. It is understandable. It is a proper figure.”

Mr. Sessions and Mr. Allen both said they hope one side effect would be better recruitment and retention of troops.

“It should be seen as a statement by the country that we intend to do whatever’s necessary to ensure a soldier’s family is generously provided for if that soldier loses his life in service to his country,” Mr. Sessions said. “That’s an obligation this nation absolutely has, and we’ve fallen behind and been slow in accommodating the financial realities.”

A spokeswoman said the Pentagon is reviewing the legislation and has not taken a position.

But in 2003, when the death gratuity doubled from $6,000 to $12,420, the administration opposed it on the grounds it took flexibility for those decisions away from the military. In a statement of policy, the administration said legislation including the increased gratuity “would undermine each military department’s determination of whether such additional benefits are warranted and appropriate.”

When Mr. Sessions approached the Defense Department a year ago to propose his new bill, he said, they gave him “good feedback,” but weren’t ready to move forward. So, instead, Congress directed the Pentagon to study the issue.

Both Mr. Sessions and Mr. Allen make their bills retroactive to the beginning of the war on terror, which they mark as Oct. 1, 2001. Mr. Sessions said his bill will cost $459 million the first year, with most of that in retroactive costs. Mr. Allen’s narrower bill would cost $133 million for the first year.

The one point of difference between military advocates like Mr. Duggan and the lawmakers is that the advocates want to see the death gratuity increase apply to anyone who dies during service on active duty, such as a training accident.

Mr. Sessions seemed confident in his bill’s chances for passage, and said he hopes the White House includes funding for it in the fiscal year 2006 budget, which the president will send to Congress early next month.

“I’m hopeful they will budget the amount of money to make this a reality in the defense budget we get in February. That will make this a lot easier. Otherwise, we’ll have to take it from some other account, which I expect us to do. I expect Congress will want to do this,” he said.

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