WASHINGTON – Democrats argued Tuesday that President Bush's proposal to boost government payments to families of U.S. troops killed in Iraq (search), Afghanistan and future war zones should extend to all military personnel who die on active duty.
Sen. Carl Levin (search) of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said that while he agreed with Bush's plan to give those families an extra $250,000, the money should also "apply to all service members on active duty" who die and not just those who die in Pentagon-designated combat zones.
Officials with the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines told the committee that the Defense Department should not give benefits to surviving spouses and children based simply on the geography of where a death occurs.
"They can't make a distinction. I don't think we should either," said Adm. John B. Nathman, vice chief of naval operations for the Navy. Added Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the Air Force's vice chief of staff: "I believe a death is a death and I believe this should be treated that way."
Under questioning from Levin, David Chu (search), the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said the administration would work with Congress to determine the exact objective of the increased benefits. Right now, he said: "our premiere objective is to those fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan."
The proposal, the subject of the panel's hearing, includes retroactive payments to the spouses or surviving relatives of the more than 1,500 who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan (search) since October 2001. It will be in the fiscal 2006 budget proposal that Bush submits to Congress next week, a Pentagon official said.
A tax-free "death gratuity," now $12,420, would grow to $100,000. The government would also pay for $150,000 in life insurance for troops. Veterans groups and many in Congress have been pushing for such increases.
"We think the nation ought to make a larger one-time payment, quite apart from insurance, should you be killed in a combat area of operations," Chu told The Associated Press in an interview in his office.
"We can never in any program give someone back their loved one," he added. "There is nothing we can do about the hurt, to make it go away. But we can make your circumstances reasonable, in terms of finances."
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who is sponsoring a bill with the same provisions, said in an interview Monday that the first-year cost of the increased benefits would be $459 million, including more than $280 million in retroactive payments of the higher gratuity and the extra life insurance payouts.
"The American people want to be generous to the families of service people who give their lives for their country. It's not a nickel-and-dime issue," he said.
In addition to the higher gratuity, the Pentagon would substantially increase life insurance benefits, Chu said. The current $250,000 coverage offered to all service members at a subsidized rate under the Servicemen's Group Life Insurance (search) program would be raised to $400,000, and for troops in a combat zone the government would pay the premiums on the extra $150,000 coverage.
Even in the case of a service member who did not participate in the basic life insurance program, the surviving spouse would receive a $150,000 settlement if the death happened in a designated combat zone, since the Pentagon is proposing to pay the premiums on that amount of coverage for everyone in a war zone. The spouse or other surviving family member also would get the $100,000 gratuity.
Chu said the extra $150,000 in life insurance and the higher death gratuity would be retroactive to Oct. 7, 2001, the date the United States launched its invasion of Afghanistan in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Some bills in Congress would make the higher gratuity retroactive but not the extra life insurance.
Under the administration's proposal, the 53 military members who were killed in the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon would not get the higher gratuity, a spokeswoman said.
As of Monday, 1,415 Americans had died in the Iraq war, according to the Pentagon's count, and 156 had died in Afghanistan and other locations deemed part of the war on terrorism.
The death gratuity is a one-time payment intended to be given to the family immediately after a service member's death; it is in addition to an array of other survivor benefits such as housing aid.
The $100,000 would apply only in cases where the service member died in a war zone as designated by the secretary of defense. Thus, a soldier killed in a training accident in the United States would get the current $12,420, Chu said. Some in Congress have proposed paying an increased gratuity for all deaths.
In 2003 the military gratuity was doubled, from $6,000, where it had stood since 1991, to $12,000, with subsequent increases to account for inflation, bringing it to $12,420 on Jan. 1, 2005. The 2003 legislation also made the payment fully tax-free. Before that, half was taxable.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the current death payments for troops killed in battle has looked less generous compared to government settlements paid to Sept. 11 families. The government paid an average $2.1 million to the families of those killed in those attacks.