Military leaders took issue yesterday with a Pentagon plan that would limit higher death benefits to troops killed in designated combat zones or operations, saying the extra payments should apply to all troops who die on duty.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the vice chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps welcomed the recommended rise in government payments and life insurance proceeds, calling it a step in the right direction. But each also expressed concern that the Pentagon plan announced Monday is discriminatory, establishing different death benefits for troops based simply on where the deaths occur.
Army Gen. Richard A. Cody, left, Air Force Gen. T. Michael Moseley and other military leaders expressed concern that a Pentagon plan on death benefits is discriminatory.
(Dennis Cook -- AP)
"We would do great harm to our servicemen and -women, all of whom serve our great nation magnificently, if we were to make such distinctions," said Gen. William L. Nyland, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps.
Although the armed forces have a history of paying troops more for combat or hazardous duty, the service leaders drew a line at death benefits.
"In terms of taking care of the men and women that they leave behind, there should be no distinction," said Adm. John B. Nathman, vice chief of naval operations.
Added Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the Air Force's vice chief of staff: "I believe a death is a death, and our servicemen and -women should be represented that way."
Under the Pentagon plan, a one-time "death gratuity" for beneficiaries, now $12,420, would grow to $100,000 only in cases in which the service member died in an area or operation designated by the secretary of defense. Life insurance coverage for service members under a group plan would rise by $150,000, to $400,000, with the government paying the premiums on the extra amount only for troops in the designated areas or operations.
Both measures would be made retroactive to October 2001, when the Afghanistan war began, allowing a boost in benefits for the families of U.S. troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Pressed on why only certain deaths should be eligible for the increased benefits, David S.C. Chu, the undersecretary of defense for personnel, cited the main intent of the initiative.
"Our premier objective here is to provide for those who have fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan, to their surviving families," he said.
But he also said the administration is willing to work with Congress to draft legislation that would authorize a broader change.
The Pentagon's plan closely resembles some bills already introduced in Congress that have drawn bipartisan support. Nonetheless, a number of Republicans and Democrats on the committee joined the call yesterday for a more encompassing initiative.
"I obviously support the increases. I think most all of us probably do," said Sen. Carl M. Levin (Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the panel. "But I also believe that they should apply to survivors of all members who die on active duty."
Other senators noted that the losses of families of troops who die in training exercises or transport missions are just as significant as the losses resulting from combat deaths.
"I think we have to make this legislation all-encompassing," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "Otherwise, we'd be in enormous gray areas. . . . All these men and women in the military are in this together, no matter where they are."
The Pentagon has estimated that its plan would cost about $280 million in retroactive payments alone. No estimates were provided yesterday for the cost of extending the enhancements in death benefits to all troops.
Earlier in the week, Pentagon officials said their plan would be included in the 2006 budget request that President Bush is scheduled to submit to Congress next week. But reflecting the urgency now attached to the issue on Capitol Hill, lawmakers said yesterday that action will likely come as part of an $80 billion emergency spending bill being drafted by the White House for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.