That revelatory detail, though, obscures another interesting point about the aftermath of Dillon Baldridge’s death: that a member of his family receives a six-figure gratuity in honor of his sacrifice.
As soon as you hear the number, $100,000, it raises an immediate question. Why $100,000? Why is that the figure that the government has determined a soldier’s life is worth? That’s not the only benefit the government pays out, incidentally; there’s also, generally, a $400,000 life insurance payment. Why those amounts? How is it determined?
The answer is not terribly satisfying. It essentially amounts to: “Because that’s what’s paid.”
In 2005, Ammin Spencer outlined the history of the death gratuity for a report at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. The history of the benefit, in short, goes something like this.
It was introduced in 1908 and set at an amount equal to six months of the decedent’s salary. In 1917, that benefit was repealed. It was reinstated three years later. In 1949, the group of people covered by the benefit was expanded to include reservists and National Guard members. In 1956, with salaries ranging widely within the armed forces, a minimum payout of $800 and a maximum of $3,000 was set.
That was the system until 1991, by which point salaries were high enough that everyone hit the $3,000 mark. The upper limit was increased to $6,000 and then fixed at that amount. In 2004, it was doubled, retroactive to 2001. That ticked upward to $12,420 in 2005 after being tied to military pay raises — but in 2006 it was lifted to $100,000, again retroactive to the beginning of the conflict in Afghanistan.
At the outset, then, the amount paid out was low. In 1912, a private in the Army made as little as $30 a month. Were he to die in combat, his family would receive $180.
Before the establishment of the set limit, there was a range of possible payouts, valuing higher-ranked officers much more than enlisted men. Using salary data compiled by Military.com, we visualize that range (using the pay grades of E-1 and O-10 as our low- and high-salary indices).
That graphic obscures an important detail: a $3,000 gratuity in 1950 isn’t the same as a $3,000 gratuity in 2017. The $180 received in 1912 is the equivalent of $4,500 in 2016.
If we adjust the rest of the benefit payments into 2016 dollars, the broad range before 1956 becomes more apparent. So does the shift in the value of the current gratuity amount — worth $135,501 in 2016 dollars in 2001 but slipping downward over time, thanks to inflation.
You probably noticed that the changes in the gratuity amount correlate roughly with American armed conflicts: World War I, the first Persian Gulf War, the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In 2005, the New York Times spoke with the families of some of those who’d died in that last conflict about the gratuity. One woman who lost her husband made the most important point related to the benefit.
“Anybody might think it’s a lot of money that they’re giving us,” said Melissa Mahlenbrock, the 19-year-old widow of an Army specialist who was killed on Dec. 3, 10 weeks after she had their first child. “But it doesn’t compensate for what happened.”
Of course, no amount could.