When House Republican leaders last week pulled back a bill that had become loaded with $300 million in special-interest tax breaks, one little-noticed provision of the legislation vanished with it: an improved tax break for the families of military personnel killed in battle.
It was a setback for organizations representing military families, which have fought for years for the provision. It would have eliminated all taxes on a $6,000 special payment the military makes to the survivors of a service member killed in combat. Currently, $3,000 of that amount, called a "death gratuity" by some, is tax-free.
The effort to broaden the tax break is part of a campaign by groups representing military dependents to improve the package of benefits for survivors of military personnel, including reservists, who die on active duty.
In addition to the $6,000 to cover immediate expenses for the family, the government pays burial costs and provides monthly compensation to the spouse and each child under 18, as well as health care coverage for the family, six months of free housing or help with housing costs and part of the service member's retirement pay. The benefits -- which come from the Department of Defense, the Veterans Administration and the Social Security Administration -- include help with education costs for the spouse and children, as well as an income tax break for at least one year.
The value of the overall package depends on several factors, including the length of military service and age of the deceased.
The Navy Mutual Aid Association calculates that the family -- say, a wife and two young children -- of a petty officer with 10 years' service who is killed in action can expect a monthly benefit of $3,327. For the family of a Navy lieutenant killed in combat, the amount climbs to $4,795 a month.
The military also offers life insurance coverage of up to $250,000 that service members can purchase at a modest cost. Private insurance for service members facing combat would cost substantially more.
Organizations that represent military families say the compensation package has improved in recent years. For example, life insurance coverage has risen to $250,000 from $100,000, the "death gratuity" has doubled since the Persian Gulf War in 1991, and the length of time that survivors can keep their military health care benefits has climbed from one year to three.
Still, these groups say, more needs to be done.
"The military family has access to resources that civilians who lose somebody in a car crash don't," acknowledged Joyce Raezer, director of government relations for the National Military Family Association, based in Alexandria. But, she said, "We believe it's time for the Department of Defense and the VA to pull in the experts and say, 'Let's look at the whole basket.' "
The $250,000 life insurance, for example, is far lower than what is available to private-sector employees in less dangerous occupations. Some military support groups want it raised to $1 million.
In addition, they say, the government needs to improve both educational benefits for family members and job-hunting assistance to spouses.
Even more important, they say, the two agencies need to better coordinate their compensation packages. Currently, monthly VA payments are subtracted from the Department of Defense's share. Military families say they deserve both.
A major focus for military families recently has been to double the "death gratuity," to $12,000 -- a goal they concede is still far off.
In making their case for improved benefits, some military family groups note the public's response to funds set up for the families of the Challenger and Columbia astronauts, and the additional monetary support available to the families of military personnel who died at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
Along with military death benefits, the Sept. 11 families can tap into a pool of hundreds of millions of dollars collected publicly, and they qualify for a federal victim compensation fund established to compensate families if they give up their right to sue the airlines over the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"Some people believe why should [other members of the military killed in action] get less than that?" said Lee Lange, co-chairman of the Survivor Committee at the Military Coalition, an umbrella group of 33 private-sector military organizations.
The bill, which contained $200 million in tax breaks for military families, was withdrawn after Democrats objected to the number of special-interest tax breaks that Republican House leaders had permitted to be included.
In recent years, the number of groups offering assistance to grieving military families has grown. In California, an organization of military wives launched Operation Homefront after the Sept. 11 attacks to assist families left behind when their military spouses go overseas.
Locally, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors Inc. offers emotional support to families with a service member killed in an accident or combat. The program links grieving families and offers a variety of services for surviving family members, said Dan Druen Jr., the group's leader.
"The Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs does a good job during that first couple of weeks of transitioning the family," Druen said. "But we're here for that long-term help with the mental and emotional care of that family,."
Some private organizations also extend financial assistance to pick up where military benefits end. Each branch of the military has a relief society offering interest-free loans and grants to members of the military and their families, as well as other assistance.