- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 30, 2005

If there is any common ground for agreement left between the warring political parties in Congress it should be in protecting the welfare of the loved ones of American soldiers who die in combat. At the moment, the nation’s gratitude for those who have given their utmost is a paltry $12,420 — in many cases hardly enough to pay for funeral expenses.

A proposal would increase that 1908-established gratuity to $100,000; hardly excessive when one considers what this government paid survivors of victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack. That compensation averages well over $1 million for civilian families with relatives of policemen and firemen killed in the tragedy receiving more than twice as much. The September 11 victim compensation fund was established to protect the commercial airline industry from lawsuits, not a great idea given the precedent it set.

Since established under Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 as a bonus for Civil War veterans, the gratuity, originally a few hundred dollars, has been increased several times but not by much. It went to $1,800 to $3,000 (depending on rank) in 1956. During the Gulf war, it was raised to $6,000 with half of it taxable. In 2003, it was increased to $12,000 and was made tax-free and tied to military pay raises. On Jan. 1, the 3 percent pay increase for all military personnel boosted it $420.

Currently, the Army provides both an opportunity for its troops to buy at a low rate a $250,000 term life insurance policy and a death benefit of $6,900. Plus there is a limited monthly stipend for wives. There have been complaints that paperwork has slowed the insurance payments, and some wives and children have been financially as well as emotionally devastated.

Another plan circulating in Congress would have the Army pay the insurance premium. Some military personnel have reduced the amount of the policy to save money or, in some case, have refused it altogether.

The proposal also would increase the insurance to $300,000, and it estimates raising both the death gratuity and the insurance ceiling would cost about $420 million in the first year. While that may seem substantial, it is little enough to assure those willing to sacrifice their lives that their survivors have extended security.

Few issues have more emotional appeal and practical application. If the nation continues relying on an all-volunteer military supplemented by reserve and National Guard units, few other proposals could do as much to keep recruitments high as convincing potential soldiers in time of war that, if anything happens to them, their loved ones will be provided for.

Aside from the practical aspect, it is simply the right and the moral thing to do. Past generations have willingly sacrificed their lives in the national interest without the kinds of protection they deserved. Few have made an issue of it. The time has come to provide the guardians of our welfare and freedom with more than just a posthumous medal for bravery.

In fact, the insurance policy should be extended to those permanently maimed in combat. As a former secretary of Veterans Affairs noted recently, those who care for soldiers who have lost a limb or face long-term disability often experience more serious emotional and financial costs than the families of those who have died. But extending the insurance to cover injuries probably is some time off.

Several private foundations also provide compensation for families of those who die in service. The Intrepid Fund, supported by private donations, distributes several thousand dollars for children and wives and husbands of military dead. But the government should bear most of the burden.

Republicans pushing the increase clearly believe it will help offset Democrat charges the Bush administration has neglected servicemen and women, failing to provide many of them, particularly reservists and Guardsmen, adequate armor and other equipment. Whatever the reasons for this push, it is an opportunity for both parties to put aside some of the animosity already so obvious in the new Congress and do something for the most deserving among us. Chances seem fairly good few lawmakers will want to vote against it, especially those who have been so critical of Iraq and current Pentagon policies.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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