- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 27, 2001

The widow of a naval officer who died 33 days short of his 20-year pension might receive the money anyway through an obscure provision of the defense appropriations bill, which is now in a conference committee.
Mary Russell said she was heartened by the possibility of receiving her husband's pension, estimated to be $1,500 a month, when President Bush signs the bill, which is expected to reach his desk next month. An amendment to the bill would replace the all-or-nothing pension with a system that awards retirement pay to survivors based on the number of years of service before death in the line of duty.
Although Lt. John Russell died of a massive heart attack while helping a fellow officer who was about to become his boss trim branches from a backyard tree, his widow might still qualify for his pension. That's because the amendment gives military authorities the option of offering retirement pay to survivors of those killed off duty.
"It's very encouraging," Mrs. Russell said yesterday. "The current all-or-nothing law is unfair, which is why I was upset. But it's not the Navy's fault they've been great through this whole thing."
The change in the law was proposed in June by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican, whose office has received numerous horror stories of service members who die just shy of their 20-year pension. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, which killed scores of service members at the Pentagon, Mrs. Hutchison joined with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, to refine the language in an amendment that was approved by the Senate Sept. 24.
The amendment would make the change in law retroactive to Sept. 10 in order to provide retirement pay to the survivors of those killed in the Pentagon. That would also cover Lt. Russell, who died on Nov. 11 Veterans Day at age 41.
"Right now, family members of anyone with less than 20 years of service get nothing in retirement benefits if their loved one dies in the line of duty unless the service member is 'medically retired' before death," Mrs. Hutchison said. "If we are going to ask these brave men and women to put their lives on the line for our country, we must pledge to help take care of their family by giving them the retirement benefits their service member earned."
Fred Downey, legislative assistant to Mr. Lieberman, said Lt. Russell's case "is exactly the kind of problem that the amendment is designed to prevent in the future."
Cmdr. Denny Moynihan, spokesman for the chief of naval personnel, yesterday endorsed the legislation, which requires no minimum length of service for pro-rated retirement pay.
"The Navy fully supports these efforts," Cmdr. Moynihan said. "Sailors and their families perform a lifetime of service."
Some Navy officials suggested a benefits coordinator should not have informed Mrs. Russell that her husband had died 33 days short of retirement because the case embarrassed the Navy when it was reported last week by The Washington Times. Mrs. Russell is a stay-at-home mother of two boys, ages 10 and 14.
But other Navy officials expressed anger and frustration that the current law forced them to withhold the pension of a sailor-turned-officer who had demonstrated heroism in last year's rescue of the USS Cole.
Lt. Russell was on the USS Tarawa in the Arabian Sea when the Cole was struck by a terrorist explosion that killed 17 sailors off the coast of Yemen. The bombing was linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network.
After steaming to the scene, Lt. Russell commandeered a Yemeni tugboat and helped push the crippled Cole away from port as Islamic fundamentalists jeered him from shore.
During this deployment, Lt. Russell became one of more than 1,400 overseas service members whose absentee ballots in last year's election were disqualified at the request of former Vice President Al Gore and his running mate, Mr. Lieberman. When the episode turned into a public relations fiasco for Mr. Gore, hundreds of ballots including Lt. Russell's were resurrected, although many more remain uncounted.
Lt. Russell will be interred next month at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.


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