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Bush seeks rise in death benefit
President Bush will propose a dramatic increase to $100,000 in government payments to families of U.S. troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and in future combat zones.
The plan to increase the tax-free “death gratuity,” now $12,420, will be part of the 2006 budget proposal submitted to Congress next week, the Pentagon’s personnel chief said in an Associated Press interview. Veterans groups and many in Congress have been pushing for such an increase.
“We think the nation ought to make a larger one-time payment, quite apart from insurance, should you be killed in a combat area of operations,” said David Chu, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. “We can never in any program give someone back their loved one.”
Mr. Chu is to present the administration’s full proposal in congressional testimony today.
In addition to the higher gratuity, the Pentagon would increase life insurance benefits substantially, Mr. Chu said. The current $250,000 coverage offered to all service members at a subsidized rate under the Servicemen’s Group Life Insurance program would be raised to $400,000. For troops in a combat zone, the government would pay the premiums on the extra $150,000 coverage.
The higher death gratuity would be retroactive to Oct. 7, 2001, the date the United States began its invasion of Afghanistan.
Mr. Chu said the bill for that would exceed $200 million. The 53 military members who were killed in the September 11 attack on the Pentagon would not be eligible for the higher gratuity, a spokeswoman said.
As of Monday, 1,415 Americans had died in Iraq, according to the Pentagon’s count, and 156 had died in Afghanistan and other locations deemed part of the war on terrorism.
Including the retroactive gratuity payments and the cost of subsidizing more life insurance coverage, the first-year cost of the proposed changes would exceed $450 million, officials said.
The death gratuity is a one-time payment intended to be given to the family immediately after a service member’s death; it is separate from an array of other survivor benefits, such as housing aid.
The $100,000 would apply only in cases where the service member died in a war zone as designated by the secretary of defense. Thus, the family of a soldier killed in a training accident in the United States would receive the current $12,420, Mr. Chu said. Some in Congress have proposed paying an increased gratuity for all deaths.
In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, defense officials decided that the death payment for troops killed in battle was too little, particularly in light of settlements paid to September 11 families. The government paid an average $2.1 million to the families of those killed in those attacks.
Lawmakers in both the House and Senate have introduced bills to raise both the gratuity and the life insurance coverage, reflecting a broader trend of more generous military benefit programs, including financial benefits for military retirees, their survivors and families of those killed in battle.
These changes are adding billions of dollars to defense budgets and raising questions about whether increasingly costly entitlements are forcing the Pentagon to forgo some investments in weapons programs.
By Tom Fitton
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