Under pressure from Congress, the Pentagon yesterday announced plans to increase death payments by nearly $250,000 to families of U.S. troops killed in combat zones.
The proposed rise, which defense officials are asking be made retroactive to October 2001 for relatives of U.S. troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, would effectively double, to $500,000, the cash that survivors can receive in immediate government payments and life insurance proceeds.
"This increase is a recognition that in certain areas of benefit compensation, the support packages for survivors have not been kept up to date," said Bryan Whitman, a senior Pentagon spokesman.
The initiative follows a mounting effort on Capitol Hill to correct what some lawmakers have decried as paltry compensation at present for survivors of U.S. troops killed in combat. The political concern has reflected growing public distress over the deaths, injuries and long hours of duty being endured by U.S. forces in Iraq.
Both Republicans and Democrats have introduced legislation to raise military death payments, part of a broader effort in Congress to improve conditions for those who serve in the armed forces, their families and veterans.
"What the Pentagon has put forward is a good core approach," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a leading advocate of greater death payments. "It will serve as a good vehicle now for moving forward."
Under the Pentagon's plan, a one-time, tax-free "death gratuity" paid to survivors of military men and women killed in the line of duty would rise from $12,420 to $100,000. The government also would increase the limit of life insurance coverage for service members by $150,00 to $400,000. The government would pay the premiums on this extra coverage for troops in combat zones.
As of yesterday, 1,415 Americans had died in the Iraq conflict and 156 had died in Afghanistan and other places designated part of the global war on terrorism, according to the Pentagon. The cost of covering higher gratuity payments and extra life insurance settlements to relatives of these troops would be about $280 million in retroactive payments, according to the Defense Department.
"There is no price that you can put on human life, and no amount of money that can compensate for the loss of a loved one," said Whitman, who discussed the Pentagon proposal after it was reported by the Associated Press. "But we can make a family's financial circumstances more bearable."
The plan, which requires congressional approval, is expected to be detailed further today by senior Pentagon authorities in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. It will be sent to Congress formally next week as part of the president's 2006 budget request, officials said.
The U.S. government currently provides various forms of compensation to service members' survivors, including specific payments for such categories as burial, housing relocation, education and child support.
But gratuity payments and life insurance coverage are particularly important because they are a source of quick cash at a time when grieving families most appreciate the financial cushion.
The gratuity, introduced in 1908, had grown to only $3,000 by the time of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. It was raised to $6,000 after that war and boosted to $12,000 in 2003. At that time, Congress also made it tax-free -- before that, half was taxable -- and tied future increases to military pay raises.
Still, the payments have been dwarfed by government settlements averaging $2.1 million paid to families of those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
As for life insurance, troops are covered under a group program that charges modest premiums. But some service members have elected to reduce their coverage, sometimes without notifying their spouses or next of kin. The new Pentagon plan would require such notification.
Retired Marine Col. Lee Lange, deputy director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America, said his group was "pleasantly surprised" by the Pentagon's proposal. The association, which represents 368,000 current and former military officers and surviving spouses, has lobbied for larger survivor benefits. So has the Military Coalition, an umbrella group of 35 military organizations with more than 5 million members.
Lange said his organization and others had to fight hard to double the gratuity payment two years ago.
"We just couldn't get attention on the issue," he recalled.
Donna Gilmore of Stafford, Va., lost her husband, Sgt. Maj. Cornell Gilmore, the senior enlisted man in the Judge Advocate General's Corps, when Iraqi insurgents shot down the helicopter he was riding in on Nov. 7, 2003. She received $250,000 in life insurance, a one-time death gratuity of $12,000, and $1,600 a month in an indemnity and survivor benefits.
"The money doesn't go far, it really doesn't," said Gilmore, who sold a car, cut back her children's living allowances and is working overtime in hopes of staying in the family home.
Her greatest concern, she added, is that the existing level of death benefits will push young military widows and their children into poverty. "They should not have to live in abject poverty on top of the despair," she said in a phone interview.