WASHINGTON – Lawmakers are expected to push aggressively for new and expedited benefits and services for military families now that the number of killed, missing in action and prisoners of war is increasing, experts say.
“Everyone is scrambling to see what they can do,” observed Kathy Moakler of the National Military Family Association, a non-profit advocacy group that facilitates aid for military families and educates the public, the military community and Congress on available benefits and services.
There are several measures afoot in Congress to aid military families, with at least two that would directly affect family members of those servicemen and women killed in action. As of Thursday, there were 51 Americans killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
On Monday, the Senate passed a bill introduced by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, which would increase the death gratuity to survivors of those killed in action to $12,000 from $6,000. House aides say there might be a similar provision rolled into the defense budget.
“We can never fully repay the debt of our nation to those who have laid down their lives for the cause of freedom,” Collins said after her bill was passed Monday.
“The best we can do is honor their memory, ensure that their sacrifice is not in vain and help provide for their families,” she added.
The gratuity is given to family members within 72 hours of the death of an active duty serviceman or woman. The last time that the death gratuity was raised was in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War. At that time, it was increased from $3,000 to $6,000.
Last week, the House passed a bill introduced by Rep. Walter Jones Jr., R-N.C., which would make the current $6,000 gratuity entirely tax exempt.
“Our troops, both past and present must know Congress stands behind them 100 percent," Jones said following the vote. "If these men and women can stand to give their lives as they fight for our freedom, then the least we can do is vote to benefit their way of life."
According to Department of Defense officials, there are number of benefits, in addition to the gratuity, which serve to help survivors maintain their quality of life after tragedy. They include:
— Rent-free government housing for 180 days and paid moving expenses;
— Burial costs;
— The unused leave of the service member;
— Life insurance totaling $250,000 or more depending on individual’s plan;
— Social Security benefits;
— Lifelong healthcare, prescription drugs and dental care;
— Lifelong commissary and exchange privileges;
— Forty-five months of education tuition provided by the Veterans Administration Education Benefit; and
— Dependency and Indemnity Compensation pay, which is a lifelong monthly check to surviving spouses who don't remarry. The payment is $945 per month, with an additional $234 for each dependent child under 18 years.
Some survivors also qualify for monthly payments under the Uniformed Services Survivor Benefit.
Immediately after notification of a loved one’s death, family members are assigned a casualty assistance officer who steers the bereaved through the labyrinth of benefits and services, said Moakler. There are also family support centers on each military installation and through each of the branches of the armed services.
“You can never, never replace that service member,” she said. “But it is a very good package.”
Family members of American prisoners of war and missing in action, of which there are officially seven and 16 respectively as of Wednesday, will continue to get their regular benefits. There is also a strong network of support services for families available to them, according to Jim Russell, chief of the missing persons branch of the Air Force Casualty Matters Division.
While the focus is trying to get their loved one back, he said, service members’ spouses and children are afforded certain benefits, like tuition and health care, as well as housing on base for at least a year. The service members’ pay is continued and it’s exempt from federal income taxes, said Russell.
“We really try to help the families out – from a support standpoint, not only just benefits,” he said, adding that his office acts as a liaison for family members, distributing any information about their loved one that the military can provide. “We, too, are looking for a happy ending.”
Yet nothing can replace the dread felt by military families whose relatives are killed, missing or held captive.
Families of American POWs were given little hope Monday as eleven bodies were discovered in and near the hospital where Pfc. Jessica Lynch, a POW, was found alive. Lynch was one of 13 Americans from the 507th Maintenance Division who disappeared after their convoy was ambushed in the early days of the war.
The bodies had not been identified Wednesday, but at least some were believed to be Americans, a military spokesman said. Five other members of the 507th Maintenance Division are confirmed POWs. Family members of those casualties and prisoners all would receive services from the military.
Scott VanDerheyden, a Marine Corps Persian Gulf War veteran who works with the National Veterans Service Fund in Connecticut, said private organizations outside of the bureaucracy are good at filling in the gap in family assistance, as well putting families in touch with the right aid – whether it be government benefits or outside assistance.
He said he expects that now that the number of dead servicemen is rising, there will be intense lobbying on behalf of lawmakers to ensure that families are getting the help they are entitled to.
“There is a lot of bureaucracy involved and I would assume that the government would do everything possible to make the process as painless as they can,” VanDerheyden said. “Hopefully, with the help of a lot of federal, state and local lawmakers, they can push hard for the process to be expedited.”