Increase in death benefits on the table

By Tom Philpott

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Defense Department officials have negotiated a proposed increase in military death benefits that would boost total payments to survivors of service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan by $238,000.

The higher payments would be made retroactive to the start of the war in Afghanistan, in the fall of 2001, to help service families who have lost loved ones in combat as well as those who will in the future.

The proposal has two main features: Designated beneficiaries or next of kin of service members killed in war would receive an additional payment of $150,000 under the Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance, whether or not they had SGLI coverage.

Also, the lump-sum military death gratuity, now $12,420, would be raised to $100,000 but only for deaths resulting from combat.

“The American people want to know that a soldier who gives his life for his country is generously taken care of. It’s important … as a statement of our support for those who go into harm’s way,” Sessions said.

The nation, he added, seeks “a bond” with its warriors and part of that bond are assurances “that their families will be well taken care of if something happens to them. We’re not there yet. This bill would make a big step in that direction.”
A Sessions aide said the bill would raise military death benefits nearer to amounts typically paid to families of law enforcement personnel and firemen killed in the line of duty.
Another consideration, he said, was the stark disparity in compensation paid to families of service members who die fighting terrorists and an average award of $1.7 million that the government has provided to families who lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., will join Sessions in sponsoring the Honoring Every Requirement of Exemplary Service (HEROES) Act. They will introduce it when the 109th Congress convenes later this month. Sessions said he expects it will attract broad support and predicted swift passage.

The senator said he negotiated the details over the last couple of months with David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. Sessions said he expects the Bush administration to request the necessary funding — $460 million the first year — in the fiscal 2006 defense budget that Bush will send to Capitol Hill by early February.

A Defense Department spokeswoman said Jan. 12 that the department could “not speak for the White House” on the issue or confirm, at this time, that the defense budget request will cover higher death benefits.

But Sessions sounded confident.

Chu has “been in my office and I’ve been in his office in the last number of months. The reason I think we may be in a position to see this occur rapidly is because the Defense Department will put it in their budget,” Sessions said.
“Otherwise we will have to find some offsetting financing, which become more complicated.”

Aides said the first-year costs are high because of the retroactive payments of bigger death gratuities and added SGLI payouts to the families of 1500 service members who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Maximum SGLI coverage would be raised to $400,000 from $250,000 for all service members willing to pay higher premiums. At current rates, monthly premiums for the added $150,000 in coverage would be $9.75. The $400,000 maximum coverage would cost $26 a month.

SGLI also would be modified to include a “no surprises” feature, like one used with the military’s Survivor Benefit Plan. Members who opt out of maximum coverage would need to show that their spouse or other beneficiary knew about the decision.

While members serve in a combat area, premiums on the first $150,000 of SGLI coverage would be paid by the government. So a member who elected $400,000 maximum coverage would see premiums drop to $16.25. For the 2 percent of members who decline SGLI, $150,000 in coverage would take effect automatically while they served in a combat area. The government would pick up the cost.
The idea is to protect the well-being of families even if members themselves aren’t prudent about insurance.

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: