Officers oppose two-tiered death benefits

Tom Philpott: CNJ columnist

The vice chiefs of armed forces gave a frosty reception to a Defense Department plan that would raise the military’s $12,400 death gratuity to $100,000 but only for survivors of service members who die in combat areas.

In testimony last week before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the second-highest ranking officers of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps united behind higher death benefits but also jointly opposed an unprecedented move to create a kind of two-tiered death payment.

Testifying alongside the vice chiefs was Dr. David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, who, along with Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., had devised the controversial plan.

“I firmly believe that we would do great harm to our servicemen and women … were we to make such distinctions in one’s service,’’ said Gen. William L. Nyland, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps.

It would be wrong, Nyland suggested, to pay more to a family because their service member died in Iraq instead of while training for war or in an accident resulting from “a late night at the club, trying to come to grips with what he may have seen over there.’’

The death benefit plan that Chu unveiled has most of the features Sessions discussed with us three weeks ago in describing his HEROES (Honoring Every Requirement Of Exemplary Service) Act of 2005. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., is co-sponsor of that bill. It would raise maximum coverage under Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance by $150,000, to $400,000, and the government would pay premiums on that additional coverage to all members assigned to combat areas.

Also, the current $12,400 death gratuity would jump to $100,000, but only for deaths that occur in combat areas.
The changes would be retroactive to October 2001 to help survivors of 1,500 service members who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq. It would raise their death benefit package by $238,000.

But higher death pay, said Adm. John B. Nathman, vice chief of naval operations, “shouldn’t be just for those … in designated geographic areas.’’

“I agree with my comrades here. We discussed it at length,’’ Gen. Richard A. Cody, Army vice chief of staff, told senators. The issue is “service to this country … We need to be very, very careful about making this $100,000 decision based upon what action was performed.’’

Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley noted that some training “is as lethal as actual combat.’’ The Air Force, he added, has “mechanisms in place to work with Dr. Chu and the department on line-of duty assessments’’ which would be more fair than distinguishing by assignment area.

But Moseley added, “I believe a death is a death.’’

Chu, however, defended restricting the $100,000 payments to families of members who die in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Overall, he testified, families whose loved ones die on active duty receive “generally good’’ benefits. Besides a death gratuity and SLGI, they qualify for one or more monthly cash benefits, either from the Defense Department, the VA or Social Security. They also receive up to $6,900 in funeral cost reimbursements. Their survivors can stay in base housing up to six months, receive up to three years of military health benefits, use base shopping and recreation facilities and get up to 45 months of VA education benefits, Chu said.

Sessions had estimated the fiscal year 2006 cost of the death package he worked out with Chu at $456 million, most of that attributed to making the retroactive payments. If applied to all active duty deaths since Oct. 7, 2001, when Operation Enduring Freedom began, another 3,000 families would see death benefits climb by $238,000. So the cost of the Sessions-Lieberman bill’s retroactivity feature alone would rise from $350 million to more than $1.1 billion.

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